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July 2010


Prosecutors' Batting Average

Rod Blagojevich likes to recite numbers.  250,000.  That's the number of children he said would be covered by his "All Kids" health insurance program.  1.7 million.  The number of people each month who took advantage of his "free rides for seniors" on public transit.

But there is another number the former Governor - and all those charged with federal crimes - should consider: 94.1%. That's the batting average of prosecutors working for U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald here in the northern district of Illinois.  Of the cases resolved last year, 94.1% ended with a conviction, according to statistics maintained by the Justice Department.

"Unless you've been there you don't know how tenacious the federal prosecutors are," said Jim Laski. He's the former Chicago City Clerk who plead guilty to taking bribes. Last week he told me a politician's first instinct is to fight, but it's often the wrong one. "When they started playing back some of those tapes to me when they arrested me, I did the Blago thing where I said 'this is taken out of context, I'm gonna fight this.'"

Laski details his decision to plead guilty in his book "My Fall From Grace: City Hall to Prison Walls." He describes a candid conversation with his defense attorney that went something like this: 'We can fight like hell against these guys, but we won't win.' 

Blagojevich and any other defendant facing the feds have a steep hill to climb and the numbers aren't on their side.  Last year US Attorneys concluded criminal cases against 88,821 defendants nationwide. 81,577 ended with convictions.  96% of all those convicted plead guilty prior to or during their trial.  81% were sentenced to prison.

Prosecutors' conviction rate is a bit lower in official corruption cases like Blagojevich's: 88% convicted, 54% went to prison last year.  Those are real people: 645 politicians, government bureaucrats and others who gamed the system and had their cases resolved last year now have guilty convictions on their record.  They include Blagojevich's former Chief of Staff John Harris.  Mr. Harris was a rising star in Mayor Daley's City Hall before he went across to the street to work in the Thompson Center. Harris testified against Blagojevich and now faces no more than 35 months in prison.

A spokesman for the US Attorney's office in Chicago says in recent years more defendants have been choosing to go trial rather than reach a plea deal with prosecutors.  The spokesman theorizes that's because judges now have more discretion in sentencing so defendants hope a judge will be softer on them than the deals being offered by prosecutors.  Just a few years ago an average of only 50 cases a year brought by the US Attorney in Chicago actually made it to trial.  This year federal prosecutors surpassed that number in July.  That means they're getting a lot more practice in the courtroom.  And that can only help their batting average.


Lightning Strikes Twice in Two Days

My computer monitor didn't even have time to burn in the image of that last post before the two candidates for US Senate agreed again!  This time on Elena Kagan's nomination to the Supreme Court. Both Kirk and Giannoulias say she should be approved. http://abclocal.go.com/wls/story?section=news/local&id=7571104.

I take no position on Elena Kagan's nomination. I'm just happy to see a candidate issue a thoughtful, reasoned statement of position without a cheap shot on his opponent.  Come on boys... let's go for three in a row! Tomorrow is Saturday, your base won't notice.


Blinded by Partisanship

Thought I'd give you some insight into the fun of parsing political speak and political operatives' inability to ever say they actually agree with their opponents.

Tonight, I'm covering an appellate court's decision which will likely mean Illinoisans will be asked to vote twice on the same day to fill Barack Obama's old Senate seat.  Essentially the court said Roland Burris' appointed term is up on election day in November and not in January when the winner of the November election will take the oath in Washington (see story here http://bit.ly/cMSpVh). We asked the campaigns of Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias whether they think Senator Burris should be allowed to stay until January.    Giannoulias made himself available for an on-camera interview in which he said "I think at this point he should probably serve out the remainder of his term and the next Senator should start in January."

Rep. Kirk was in Washington and unavailable for an interview. His spokesperson responded to my question with the following statement: "Over the last four years, Alexi Giannoulias stood by and watched our state slip into fiscal crisis. We certainly don't need to saddle Illinois families with any more debt."

Doesn't quite answer the question, does it?  Only after a repeated back and forth, did Kirk's PR person finally admit... wait for it... wait for it... prepare the breaking news bulletin... the two candidates AGREE!

My intent is not to specifically pick on Team Kirk, because many political operatives of both parties handle issues this way.  It's ashame.  There's nothing wrong with saying "we agree."   Voters may even appreciate it.


It seems like only yesterday...

"What the Governor of Illinois did was legal."

That's what Roland Burris told me on a cold night in January of 2009.  We met in a hotel lobby in Washington, D.C. with the United States Capitol visible out a nearby window.  Burris was correct.  His appointment by then Governor Rod Blagojevich was perfectly legal.  It would take nine more days before Senator Harry Reid and his cabal finally acknowledged their fellow Democrat Blagojevich had boxed them into a corner, forcing them to admit his pick.

Seventeen months later, it's now clear Senator Burris benefited more than anyone else from Mr. Blagojevich's arrest and prosecution.  Nearly 100 wiretaps have now been played at the former Governor's trial.  Blagojevich talked about selecting everyone from Oprah Winfrey to himself to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat. Never was Roland Burris' name heard on the government recordings. Not once did Blagojevich ever say he was thinking of appointing Burris.

Burris did not stumble onto the scene until after the feds swooped in and arrested Illinois' two term Governor.  That's when Blagojevich - desperately needing to look like a man in charge and anxious to thumb his nose at  fellow Democrats - searched for a patsy.  Burris happily played the part because it meant he could play the role of a United States Senator.

"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said as Roland Burris did what no other politician would: Stand beside Rod Blagojevich in public with cameras rolling.  But now we know the truth. Blagojevich never seriously considered appointing Burris until he had no other options.  The fact Burris accepted gives insight to his character.

"Ben, I have no qualms, no concerns about whether I'd be tainted because I know I won't be tainted as a result of the Governor carrying out his constitutional duties," Burris told me at the time.  I wonder, in an honest and private moment today would he give the same answer?