Blagojevich Pleads Not Guilty at Arraignment


blagoFormer Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich pleaded not guilty to broad federal racketeering and fraud charges today in a packed federal courtroom here and then told reporters he will prove his innocence. After a 10-minute appearance before U.S. District Judge James Zagel, Blagojevich, 52 years old, said he will clear his name in the face of charges that, among other things, he schemed to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat for money or a job.Outside the courthouse, Blagojevich hugged supporters, joked with reporters and insisted on his innocence. Asked how he would defend himself, he said: “The truth. I believe in the truth.” He said he intends “to prove my innocence and clear my name and be vindicated of what are inaccurate allegations.”

Blagojevich’s older brother, Robert Blagojevich, 53, also pleaded not guilty in an arraignment today. Four other associates of Rod Blagojevich are scheduled to be arraigned later this month.

It is unclear how the former governor will pay for a legal defense. A 19-count federal indictment unsealed this month sought forfeiture of all money and assets held at four banks in the name of Blagojevich’s campaign fund, Friends of Blagojevich. At the end of last year, that fund contained $2.7 million. Lawyers could balk at taking the case because of the risk that the court will order any fund money used to pay legal fees returned.

Even if Blagojevich is allowed to use the money, it is “insufficient” to build a strong legal team, said attorney Sheldon Sorosky, who represented Mr. Blagojevich at today’s arraignment. Two high-profile Chicago attorneys have already left Blagojevich.

Michael Ettinger, attorney for Robert Blagojevich, said he intends to seek a separate trial for his client “just so he doesn’t have to sit through a four-month trial when his trial could maybe take three weeks.”

Asked how the brothers are getting along, Ettinger told reporters, “there was a little strain” but “everything is going to work out.”

Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, was charged with 16 felony counts, including racketeering, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and lying to federal agents. The counts against Blagojevich carry maximum prison terms of five to 20 years each and fines of as much as $250,000.

Blagojevich’s political career began unraveling the morning of Dec. 9 when agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested him at his home on Chicago’s north side. In their 75-page indictment, prosecutors allege Blagojevich, his brother and their associates sought illegal profits from the governor’s authority to award money and jobs in construction, legal work, consulting and investments. Among those charged are two of Blagojevich’s former gubernatorial chiefs of staff, Alonzo Monk and John Harris. Mr. Harris has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

A month after his arrest, Blagojevich was impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives. On Jan. 29, as the Senate prepared to vote on his removal, Mr. Blagojevich, in a 50-minute plea to legislators, said, “I have done absolutely nothing wrong.” Senators voted 59-0 to remove him.

{WSJ/ELisha Newscenter}