SPRINGFIELD, Ill. • Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's plan to testify at his own corruption trial — perhaps as early as this week — is "a dangerous gamble," says the former federal prosecutor who sent Blagojevich's predecessor to prison.
But it's a gamble the impeached Democrat may have no choice but to take because of the hours of secretly taped conversations that jurors have already heard supporting government claims that Blagojevich was trying to sell his official powers to the highest bidder.
"The government's case is clearly focused on the tapes. … (Prosecutors) are relatively well-positioned," said Patrick Collins, who was the lead prosecutor in the federal corruption trial that sent former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to prison in 2007.
"In my experience, in a criminal case, when the defendant chooses to testify, it changes the whole dynamic of the case. It becomes a one-witness case," said Collins. "It's absolutely a high-stakes gambit. Some might say it's a Hail Mary pass."
What Blagojevich may have working in his favor, Collins and others say, is the fact that the main allegations against him involve alleged schemes that never came to fruition. Most notably, Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents before he could carry out what the government claims was a plot to auction off President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat for personal gain.
"In the Ryan case, we didn't have those tapes …, but we did have completed (criminal) acts," said Collins. While it is possible to convict based on planned criminal acts that don't pan out, Collins noted, "it causes some people to pause a little bit."
The government rested its case in Blagojevich's corruption trial in Chicago on Tuesday, five weeks after starting it. The defense cases for Blagojevich, 53, and his brother and co-defendant, Robert Blagojevich, 54, begin today.
"I will prove my innocence and I will testify," a smiling Rod Blagojevich said as he left court last week, holding the hand of his wife, Patti.
Blagojevich has pleaded not guilty to charges that include scheming to trade in his power over Obama's former Senate seat for political funding or a cushy federal appointment. He's also accused of plotting to use his official powers to squeeze campaign donations from a road builder and a racetrack owner, and threatening to withhold state funding from a children's hospital in an attempt to force a campaign contribution from the hospital's president.
It's still unclear when Blagojevich will testify, though it could be as early as this week. Blagojevich's defense attorneys didn't return calls and e-mails seeking comment last week.
But comments in court so far indicate the defense will argue that Blagojevich didn't intend to commit crimes when he was caught on tape talking to his advisers about how to raise more campaign money. Part of their argument, defense attorneys have said, will be that he was getting bad legal advice from his inner circle.
State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, a former Madison County state's attorney who was in Springfield for the Blagojevich years, finds that argument problematic. Haine pointed out that Blagojevich is a lawyer who managed to get elected to the state Legislature, Congress and the governor's office.
"We all saw in Springfield that Rod was in charge. I'm not sure you can paint him as a naïve bumbler," said Haine. "The idea that he was a dope being led around by advisers — I can't believe a jury is going to buy that. … He wasn't just elected off the street."
Ryan, now serving a 6½-year prison sentence, didn't testify at his own trial. What Blagojevich faced that Ryan didn't are the government wiretapped recordings that appear to show Blagojevich plotting with advisers on how to raise campaign money by withholding state funding, stalling state law approval and other official actions.
Those tapes arguably make it necessary for Blagojevich to take the stand and address the jury, said Collins, Ryan's prosecutor. It's a risk that defense attorneys usually avoid if they can — and one that may be particularly risky as it relates to Blagojevich, who has spent the last year showing America just how unpredictable he can be when he opens his mouth on talk shows, a reality show and in a book he wrote after his arrest.
"When a defendant testifies, it really becomes a credibility referendum" on the defendant himself, said Collins.
Blagojevich's lawyers have won the court's permission to play additional government tapes that the prosecution hasn't presented to the jury, which the defense says will bolster its argument that Blagojevich either wasn't serious about the alleged plots or didn't know he was doing anything illegal.
When defendants in corruption cases testify, it's typical that they go last in the defense's case. But U.S. District Judge James Zagel on Thursday warned defense attorneys that Blagojevich's testimony may be necessary to show the relevance of other witnesses they're seeking to call, meaning they might want to call Blagojevich early.
"It's fair notice to you that you are going to have to deal with this question," Zagel said.
Asked after court whether he would heed the judge's warning, defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky was noncommittal. "We don't know yet," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.