Editorial: As Blagojevich case begins, voters on trial, too

Staff Writer
Mount Shasta Herald

"I challenge the government: If you are on the side of truth and justice, as you say you are, and if this was a crime spree, as you say it was ... play all the tapes. Play the truth, and play the whole truth." - Rod Blagojevich, at a Feb. 10 plea hearing in federal court

Starting today, as jury selection gets under way in the federal corruption trial of Illinois' latest disgraced former governor, Blagojevich at last has his chance to prove his oft-repeated claim since his December 2008 arrest that the 500 hours of audio recordings federal prosecutors made of his conversations will exonerate rather than convict him.

As with any criminal case, Blagojevich is of course considered innocent until proven guilty. He'll forgive many if not most residents of the Land of Lincoln who, understandably jaded, believe he has his work cut out for him, between his now infamous quote about filling then-Sen. Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat - "I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden, and I'm not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing" - and what they saw of his conduct over six years of running the state into oblivion.

All told, Blagojevich faces 24 counts of racketeering, extortion, bribery, mail fraud and lying to FBI agents. He is alleged to have plotted to sell the Senate seat and to have shaken down those interested in doing business with the state for campaign donations, including a Chicago children's hospital. If found guilty on all charges, he would face up to effectively life in prison and $6 million in fines.

Unlike many trials of politicians past, the swiftness with which this one has commenced is impressive. Less than 18 months have elapsed between Blagojevich's arrest and opening gavel. Some 21 months passed between convicted former Gov. George Ryan's arrest and trial, while other pols across the nation have waited even longer. Former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, under indictment for almost five years without meeting his accusers in a courtroom, comes to mind. What's that they say about justice delayed being justice denied?

We trust this trial will be as efficient as possible given its complexities, as well as fair to all concerned. Most of all, we hope the proceedings will be sober and respectful and not degenerate into a circus, as Ryan's trial seemed to at times and which often happens whenever Blagojevich is involved. That's far from assured, as witnesses are expected to include former Blagojevich chiefs of staff Lon Monk and John Harris - both of whom have turned state's witness - and perhaps onetime pal Tony Rezko, now doing time for a variety of illegal acts. Meanwhile, Blagojevich has sent signals that he intends to take the stand in his own defense.

Improving the odds is presiding Judge James Zagel, who's widely perceived as an evenhanded, no-nonsense jurist, likely to tolerate little in the way of shenanigans from the camera-happy ex-guv or his defense team. Moreover, Zagel has lengthy experience with high-profile trials, having cut his teeth as a member of the prosecution team that in 1967 convicted Richard Speck in Peoria for the brutal murder of eight student nurses in Chicago. He also understands state government, having served in the state revenue department and overseen a branch of the attorney general's office. He is well-regarded enough to have been tabbed for a seat on the federal intelligence court that deals, in part, with electronic eavesdropping and wiretapping, obviously a key element in this case.

Indeed, a great deal hinges on the tapes. Jurors will hear prosecutors play selections detailing the alleged schemes and the defense play segments that they'll say offer proof of innocence. We hope Illinoisans pay attention, because in addition to Blagojevich they're also arguably on trial here. Twice they elected him, even with serious baggage the second time around of which they should have been well aware. If convicted, he would be the fourth former Illinois governor in less than 40 years to land behind bars.

It's a reminder - remarkable that we need one - that our choices at the ballot box have consequences, and that we get as competent and as ethical a government as we deserve.

Journal Star of Peoria, Ill.