Ex-Illinois Gov. Blagojevich pleads not guilty

April 14, 2009 11:37:34 AM PDT
Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges Tuesday, making official his denial of political malfeasance that authorities say included a scheme to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

Blagojevich looked relaxed as he stood alongside his brother, Robert, who also pleaded not guilty in the alleged scheme.

The former governor did not make a statement before the plea to racketeering and fraud charges, but told reporters and spectators when he entered the courthouse that he was "innocent of every single accusation."

"Now we can begin the process of getting the truth out and I can clear my name and vindicate myself," he said.

Blagojevich, 52, is charged with trying to auction off the Senate seat, planning to squeeze money from companies seeking state business and plotting to use the financial muscle of the governor's office to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers who had called for his impeachment.

Defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky, a longtime Blagojevich friend, entered the plea on his client's behalf before U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel. Zagel then asked Blagojevich if he was pleading not guilty to all counts.

"That's correct," the impeached former chief executive responded.

As he left the courthouse surrounded by reporters and camera crews, Blagojevich grinned and bantered as if he were running another successful campaign rather than facing federal corruption charges.

"I'm glad this process has finally begun. It's the end of the beginning in one respect, but it's the beginning of another aspect," he said. "That is, the beginning of me being able to prove and clear my name and be vindicated of what are inaccurate allegations."

Sorosky told Zagel he is seeking federal prosecutors' permission to tap Blagojevich's $2 million Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign fund to pay additional lawyers because more legal muscle is needed to try the case.

"It's just not possible for one lawyer to defend Mr. Blagojevich, no matter who that lawyer may be," Sorosky said.

Outside court, Sorosky said that even with the campaign fund Blagojevich "does not have sufficient funds to pay for lawyers," recalling that attorney Dan K. Webb estimated the total cost of defending former Gov. George Ryan on corruption charges topped $15 million.

Webb's firm of Winston & Strawn defended Ryan for free. Ryan was convicted of racketeering and fraud and is currently serving a 61/2-year federal prison sentence.

Sorosky said additional lawyers have been unwilling to sign on to Blagojevich's defense team until they find out if they will be paid.

"What was it that Jerry McGuire said?" Sorosky asked.

"Show me the money," a television reporter yelled out.

Prosecutors have told defense attorneys they will ask the judge to order the campaign money forfeited if Blagojevich is convicted. Attorneys could then be ordered to return any fees paid from the campaign fund.

There has even been speculation that Blagojevich might have to turn to the federal defender's program if Zagel doesn't assure attorneys they can be paid through the campaign fund.

Robert Blagojevich, a self-employed real estate investor, told reporters he was "prepared to cope with the charges and work through them."

His attorney, Michael Ettinger, acknowledged the case has put stress on the brothers' relationship. Rod Blagojevich brought his brother on to head his campaign fund after federal prosecutors began investigating an earlier chairman of the fund, businessman Christopher G. Kelly.

"Everything is going to work out between the two of them and obviously the type of situation they're both in, it's a little strain, but everything's fine," Ettinger said of the brothers.

The other defendants in the case -- Kelly, former aide John Harris and Springfield millionaire William Cellini -- are to be arraigned Thursday. Former aide Alonzo Monk is to be arraigned next week.

Harris, a former Blagojevich chief of staff, is cooperating with the federal investigation. Monk, also a former chief of staff and campaign manager, is reported to be cooperating with the investigation as well.

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