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Second Blagojevich corruption trial begins


Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich steps into his car after leaving the Dirksen federal building after his arraignment hearing in Chicago, Illinois April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Frank Polich
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich steps into his car after leaving the Dirksen federal building after his arraignment hearing in Chicago, Illinois April 14, 2009. REUTERS/Frank Polich

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The second corruption trial of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich got under way on Wednesday with prospective jurors filling out questionnaires.

The two-term Democrat is charged with selling his office, including attempts to sell President Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.

Finding an impartial jury could be complicated by Blagojevich loudly proclaiming prosecutors were unfairly limiting evidence, as well as publicity from his first trial, which ended in August with a hung jury on 23 of 24 counts due to one holdout juror.

"He came within a hair of being convicted and I doubt he'll be the beneficiary of a deadlock this time," said Hugh Totten, a Chicago attorney who has followed the Blagojevich case.

"They've got him on audiotape clearly shopping the Senate seat to the highest bidder and his defense is essentially, 'everybody does it,'" Totten said.

Prospective jurors filled out written questionnaires, a court spokesman said, which are intended to weed out those who have an obvious bias and guide in-person questioning by lawyers and the judge beginning on Thursday.

Blagojevich will be present, one of his lawyers said.

In conversations secretly taped by the FBI and played at the first trial, the former governor discussed with aides his leverage to pick Obama's replacement to secure campaign donations or a Cabinet post.

Blagojevich talked to aides about pressing for campaign donations in exchange for official acts benefiting a horse racing track, a children's hospital, construction contractors and then-congressman Rahm Emanuel's project for a school.

Lawyers for Blagojevich may play more of the tapes and try to portray him as a typical politician weighing his options and throwing around ideas, legal experts said. In the last trial, Blagojevich's lawyers did not call any witnesses of their own.

"Idle chatter or not, it's painfully obvious from those tapes that he was focused on himself and personal benefit. It's hard to believe that a jury would find that anything but greedy, not goofy," former federal prosecutor Ron Safer said.

The defense may attempt to draw into the trial Obama and his former chief of staff Emanuel, now Chicago's mayor-elect -- though both were peripheral figures in the first trial.

Presiding Judge James Zagel denied a defense request to see notes from an FBI interview of Obama, saying it would not help Blagojevich's cause.

Blagojevich, 54, was impeached and ousted from office in January 2009, about a year after his arrest. To earn money, he has appeared as a contestant on TV's "Celebrity Apprentice" and as a pitchman for a nut company.

Right up to his second trial, he has trumpeted his innocence.

"I have been falsely accused. The question is, can we get the truth out?" he said last week.

Prosecutors have sought to streamline the case by dropping two racketeering charges and a fraud count, leaving 20 counts including fraud, bribery, and attempted extortion.

Prosecutors dropped charges against Robert Blagojevich, the former governor's brother who helped run his campaign, after the first jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.

Several of the counts carry potential 20-year sentences, and Blagojevich faces $5 million in potential fines. His lone conviction for making false statements -- denying to the FBI he solicited campaign donations in return for state contracts -- carries a possible 5-year prison term.

(Additional reporting by Janan Hanna; Editing by Greg McCune)

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