Racetrack owner says donation pressure angered him

June 21, 2010 12:35:23 PM PDT
A racetrack owner testified Monday that he was angry after being pressured to make a $100,000 campaign contribution to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- by a lobbyist who was supposed to be working for him -- in exchange for the governor's signature on a bill that would help the horse-racing industry.

John Johnston testified at Blagojevich's corruption trial that he felt uncomfortable talking about fundraising with members of the governor's inner circle and often tried to change the subject when they brought it up.

But he said the lobbyist, Alonzo Monk, made it clear in a conversation on Dec. 3, 2008, that the governor would sign the bill as soon as Johnston had made the contribution. Blagojevich was arrested six days later, and the contribution was never made. Blagojevich signed the bill a week after his arrest.

Johnston quoted Monk as saying in late 2008: "I spoke to the governor and he's concerned that if he signs the racing legislation, you might not be forthcoming with a contribution."

Johnston testified that he "responded negatively -- I got agitated, animated ... I shut the conversation down." He said Monk was supposed to be working on his behalf -- and was being paid $150,000 a year by Johnston -- and he was angry Monk was pressing him for a contribution.

But he testified, "I would imagine, if I made a contribution, they'd cash the check and he'd sign the bill."

Johnston appeared relaxed and spoke calmly on the stand, even joking at times.

Monk, who was Blagojevich's former chief of staff, testified last week that Blagojevich withheld signing the bill as a way to pressure Johnston for the contribution, as the governor allegedly tried to raise as much money as possible before a new campaign ethics law kicked in Jan. 1.

Monk has pleaded guilty to plotting to pressure Johnston for campaign money and testified in hopes getting a lighter sentence.

Blagojevich, 53, has pleaded not guilty to scheming to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat President Barack Obama gave up following his November 2008 election. He has also pleaded not guilty to plotting to launch a racketeering scheme using the powers of the governor's office.

Under cross-examination, defense attorney Sam Adam Sr. zeroed in Johnston's testimony where Monk quotes Blagojevich. Adam, asking questions in a gruff, gravelly voice and sometimes moving around the courtroom, suggested that Monk could have been lying.

"The governor never said that to you, ever, did he?" asked Adam.

"No," Johnston responded.

Later, Adam asked if "the only person to put any pressure at all on you (about a contribution) was your own lobbyist?"

Johnston said, "That's correct ... my own lobbyist."

If convicted, Blagojevich could face up to $6 million in fines and a sentence of 415 years in prison, although he is certain to get much less under federal guidelines.

His brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to taking part in the alleged scheme to sell the Senate seat and to plotting to illegally pressure Johnston for the $100,000 campaign contribution.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

APTV-06-21-10 1254CDT

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