Monday, April 5, 2010

Taxpayers likely to help fund ex-gov's defense

Rod Blagojevich isn't governor anymore, but Illinois taxpayers are still probably going to have to pick up a portion of his legal tab when he goes on trial this summer on federal charges that accuse him of abusing the powers of the governor's office.

The ousted governor's campaign fund is paying his legal costs. But that fund -- which stood at $2.8 million when Blagojevich was hit with federal corruption charges -- is down to about $1.4 million, according to the U.S. District Court clerk's office, with two months until the scheduled trial date.

That's likely to be a busy -- read: costly -- two months for Blagojevich's legal team.

On top of that, there's the trial itself, which is expected to last anywhere from three to five months.

What are the chances that the remaining $1.4 million will cover all of the ex-governor's legal bills through his trial?

"Zero," predicts Ron Safer, a former federal prosecutor who served as chief of the criminal division of the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago and is now managing partner of the law firm Schiff Hardin LLP. "It won't cover costs. They will go to public funds."

U.S. District Judge James Zagel has put limits on the use of the campaign fund, including limiting Blagojevich's lawyers to fees of $110 an hour.

But it's still unlikely the money will last, agrees defense lawyer Patrick Collins.

"I think it's a virtual certainty they will go through the $2.8 million, based on the pace they've gone through the $1.4 million," says Collins, who, as a federal prosecutor, led the team that sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison.

Collins and Safer say trial preparation intensifies exponentially in the weeks leading to jury selection. And trial work itself can mean 18-hour days, likely whittling the fund to nothing.

"They may be right, they may be right," says Sheldon Sorosky, one of Blagojevich's lawyers.

Still, Sorosky says Blagojevich's team -- four lawyers now, with a fifth on his way -- is trying to keep its cost within the bounds of the $2.8 million to avoid tapping public funds.

Another Blagojevich lawyer, Sam Adam Jr., predicts taxpayers will end up paying for a portion of the former governor's bills but says he thinks the cost to the public will be "way less" than $500,000.

"We've actually saved the taxpayers $2.8 million," Adam says. "That's 90 percent less than the Ryan trial. I don't know of anybody in America who would take a 90 percent cut in their defense."

Former Gov. Jim Thompson, who then led the law firm Winston & Strawn, which defended Ryan pro bono, once estimated the firm's defense work for Ryan was worth $20 million.

Federal prosecutors sought to seize Blagojevich's campaign cash last year, saying he had sometimes coerced contributions -- an allegation Blagojevich has denied.

Last year, Zagel put a restraining order on the fund, saying he wanted to avoid having Blagojevich -- who has said he's broke -- immediately tap in to tax dollars for his defense.

Zagel said then that Blagojevich's lawyers -- including Sorosky, Sam Adam, Sam Adam Jr. and Michael Gillespie -- could dip into the campaign fund, but he would limit them to charging $110 an hour for their services.

Without Zagel's limitation, experts say taxpayers could have been stuck with a far heftier bill. Top white-collar criminal-defense lawyers typically charge $500 to $1,000 an hour.

"He's buying a lot of time, he's buying a lot of hours," Kay Hoppe, a Chicago legal consultant who heads Credentia Inc., says of the judge. "That's a phenomenally low hourly rate. Even associates at good firms made more than that."

None of the $1.4 million that has been spent so far went toward last year's impeachment hearings, at which the Illinois Legislature voted to boot Blagojevich out of office.

So far, the money has gone to pay six lawyers and 23 consultants and experts, according to Michael Dobbins, the federal court clerk for the Northern District of Illinois.

Robert Blagojevich -- the ex-governor's brother and former campaign chief -- will face trial with him. But Robert Blagojevich is paying his legal fees out of his own pocket.

Sorosky says that working for the $110-an-hour rate has been a sacrifice for Blagojevich's lawyers, who have had to abandon other cases to deal with the complexities of the Blagojevich case, which involves hundreds of hours of secretly made audio recordings.

"All our secretaries and landlords want to be paid," says Sorosky, adding: "$110 an hour doesn't go very far. Our goal is not to have that [public money]. Whether we can attain it, I don't know."

Adam estimates that the government has spent millions of tax dollars on the investigation, including the cost of 30 FBI agents who have worked on the case.

"And, looking at the current political state of Illinois," Adam says, referring to state government after Blagojevich, "people should ask themselves: 'Are we better off?' "

By Natasha Korecki

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

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