CHICAGO – Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich asked a judge Wednesday to cancel his upcoming retrial on political corruption charges and promptly sentence him on the sole conviction from the first trial, saying money woes prevent him from mounting an ample defense.
Legal observers called the request a long shot at best, saying the government has no reason to agree to such a move.
A defense motion filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago insists that Blagojevich isn't conceding any guilt, including on the conviction of lying to the FBI. That's the lone count jurors agreed on last year at his otherwise deadlocked trial.
The motion says the impeached governor, whose legal bills are supposed to be paid by the government, wants to forgo a retrial on the grounds that none of his lawyers have been paid for months of pretrial preparations.
"The chances of prosecutors or the judge going along with this are 0.0 percent," said Michael Helfand, a Chicago attorney not linked to the case. The motion implies Blagojevich holds some level of bargaining power, Helfand added, "But he doesn't."
Blagojevich, 54, faces up to five years in prison for the conviction of lying to federal investigators about his fund-raising tactics, and his sentencing was expected to occur only after the retrial.
At that trial, set to start on April 20, Blagojevich faces 20 charges, including that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat in exchange for a top job or campaign cash. Most of those counts carry a far stiffer sentence — up to 20 years in prison.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago, Kim Nerheim, declined any comment on the motion.
Blagojevich's motion claims financial woes brought on by an alleged failure of the government to foot the broke former governor's legal bills mean his lawyers won't be prepared for the scheduled April 20 start of the corruption retrial.
Among the reasons the motion cites for forgoing a retrial was a still-fragile economy and wrangling in Washington, D.C., over the budget.
"At a time when courts and agencies around the country have been directed to freeze hiring, and jobs are in jeopardy nationwide, the use of funds on this second trial . . . is an imprudent use of taxpayer funds," it says.
Prosecutors vowed to try the case again just minutes after jurors at the first trial declared they could reach a verdict on only the single count. Since then, they have given no hint that they would be willing to settle for the one conviction.
The former governor had drawn from a nearly $3 million fund but it ran dry as the initial trial finished, and presiding Judge James Zagel later ruled he would be allowed to retain only two lawyers and a paralegal on the taxpayer's dime.
Wednesday's motion alleges that the lawyers haven't been paid for months and the dearth of funds undermines their ability to conduct investigations or seek expert opinions.
"The government continues to have every resource at its disposal," it says. "Yet, the defense is stymied in its ability to prepare for trial."
Michael Dobbins, clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, told The Associated Press that vouchers from Blagojevich's attorneys for their work were submitted in mid-February, and — by happenstance — checks were approved by Washington authorities on Wednesday.
"The checks were cut today and going out in the mail," he said. He couldn't say the amounts of the checks.
Blagojevich's attorney Sheldon Sorosky didn't immediately return a call Wednesday seeking additional comment.
Helfand, the Chicago attorney, speculated that Wednesday's motion may be a defense signal of their willingness to entertain a plea deal.
"If prosecutors can get agreement that Blagojevich serves more than five years — and so avoid chances of getting egg on their faces by another deadlock — maybe they'd consider it," he said. "But I think their confidence has to be high they can get more convictions at a retrial."
In recent months, Blagojevich attorneys have said on several occasions that they would not consider a plea agreement.
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