CHICAGO – An angry judge chastised ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday for "smuggling" testimony into his political corruption retrial that had previously been ruled inadmissible.
Judge James Zagel said Blagojevich has insisted on bringing up issues or opinions that the judge has ruled shouldn't be mentioned in front of the jury. He warned him sharply not to do it again.
"This is a deliberate effort by this witness to raise something that he can't raise," Zagel said. "This is not fair, this is a repeated example of a defendant who wants to say something by smuggling (it) in."
Zagel, who sent the jury out of the room before admonishing Blagojevich, implied that the former governor's motives were less than pure.
"I make a ruling, and then the ruling is disregarded, and then I have to say, 'Don't do it,'" Zagel said. "And when you do that more than once or twice, it is inevitable that I'm going to believe that there is some purpose other than the pursuit of truth."
Blagojevich, upbeat as he took the stand Wednesday, appeared taken aback by Zagel's comments. Looking sheepish, he tried to raise his hand in an effort to say something to the judge, but Zagel ignored him.
Zagel had said earlier that Blagojevich wasn't allowed to tell jurors that he thought his plans to seek a top job in exchange for appointing someone to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat were legal.
Without jurors present, Blagojevich had told Zagel that he wanted to testify that he believed he wasn't crossing any lines by asking Obama to appoint him to an ambassadorship or Cabinet post in exchange for appointing the president-elect's choice for the seat.
"That I land in a legal place was always on my mind," he said. "If someone said it was illegal, we dropped the idea and moved on."
Zagel looked skeptical as he listened to Blagojevich's argument. In the end, he said Blagojevich couldn't make any such case.
"The fact that he thinks it is legal is not relevant here," Zagel said.
Prosecutors had fought to keep Blagojevich from talking about the legal issue, and it's unclear how radically it will affect Blagojevich's testimony going forward or his defense strategy.
What set Zagel off was Blagojevich referring obliquely to FBI tapes that had been edited, and hinting that federal agents may have omitted parts that would have cleared him.
"I said something there," Blagojevich, looking at a transcript of one recording. "It's not there now."
Later, Zagel also sustained prosecutors' repeated objections when Blagojevich several times told jurors about how he often spoke with his governor's office attorney about the Senate seat — implying that he was meticulous about not breaking the law.
Just before the lunch break, Zagel told defense attorneys that they need to start winding down their questions for Blagojevich, saying they kept making the same point over and over.
"You have a client who ... likes to give a speech," Zagel said, speaking again with jurors out of the room. "But we've gotten to the point where it's not doing any good." He said the tedium of the answers could even end up hurting Blagojevich.
Jurors had finally begun hearing from Blagojevich about the Senate seat Tuesday after three days of testimony in which he had focused on accusations that he attempted to shake down executives for campaign cash. He began delving into the Senate seat charge toward the end of that day.
Blagojevich told jurors he wasn't enticed by an alleged pay-to-play proposal from fundraisers close to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to raise millions of dollars in campaign cash if Blagojevich named Jackson to the seat.
"I was opposed to the offer of fundraising in exchange for the Senate seat," he said.
Blagojevich also echoed a long-held defense argument that all the FBI wiretaps that capture him talking on the telephone about how he might benefit from naming someone to seat was just that — talk. He said his method for arriving at a decision on the seat was to talk with as many confidants and as often as possible.
At the end of those proceedings, prosecutors complained that Blagojevich seemed to be resorting to arguments that Zagel explicitly ruled he could not make, including that he was merely engaging in the kind of wheeling and dealing all politicians engage in.
Blagojevich, 54, denies all wrongdoing. He faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion, conspiracy to commit bribery and wire fraud. In his first trial last year, a hung jury agreed on just one count — convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.
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