The citizens of Chicago are hunkering down for a courtroom spectacular with a cast that will include an impeached former governor with big hair and an even bigger ego as well as the chief of staff of a sitting United States President. Proceedings are expected by turns to be tense and tawdry and will last all summer.
This is the corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich who was impeached by Illinois' state legislature following his arrest on corruption charges in December 2008. The case opened with the start of jury selection yesterday just hours after lawyers confirmed that Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, had been subpoenaed potentially to testify; so too Valerie Jarrett, another top aide in the White House. Both are Illinois natives.
They have seen this before in the Windy City. It has only been four years since Mr Blagojevich's predecessor in the governor's mansion, George Ryan, a Republican, was convicted of misusing his office to fatten his pockets. But this time, the pain is for the Democrats and the timing is bad. The mid-term elections are fast approaching and The President's party is trying to cling on to top offices in the state, the governorship included.
Some of the charges against Mr Blagojevich, who has loudly protested his innocence, concern the trading of favours from his office in exchange for campaign cash. He is accused of seeking favours, for example, from the president of a children's hospital and the Chicago Tribune. The most serious counts against him could carry prison sentences of 20 years each. Jurors will hear as much as 100 hours of tape from wire-taps of the defendant.
Most famously, Mr Blagojevich, who has used his time since his fall from office to write a book, host a radio show and even make an appearance on Celebrity Apprentice in the US, is accused of trying to sell the US Senate seat that was relinquished by Mr Obama when he was elected president at the end of 2008. The former governor arrived at the court yesterday looking relaxed and hugged supporters. "I feel great," he said. "The truth shall set you free," he told one well-wisher.
Being subpoenaed by no means guarantees being called to the stand and does not spell legal trouble for the witness. Mr Emanuel, if called, may be questioned about an alleged attempt by a close associate of Blagojevich to pressure him to ask his brother, a Hollywood agent, to raise campaign funds.
Mr Emanuel, then a Congressman, was allegedly warned to expect the state to withhold cash for a school in his district if he didn't play ball. "We served a lot of these people just in case they were needed," Shelly Sorosky, a defence lawyer in the case, commented.
From the start of the scandal, Mr Blogojevich has been unbowed, saying he has been set up the Democratic machine in Chicago. "I will fight, I will fight, and I will fight until I take my last breath," he said after his arrest. Jury selection is likely to take a few days.Reuse content