Rod Blagojevich started off his corruption trial in full campaign mode, greeting well-wishers with hugs and handshakes, while the judge began questioning potential jurors who emerged as a cross section of the middle American voters who first elected the former Illinois governor.
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel questioned 29 potential jurors in five hours Thursday at Blagojevich's trial on charges of scheming to profit by selling or trading an appointment to the Senate seat that Barack Obama left to assume the presidency.
Zagel asked one woman, an administrative assistant, about her remark on a jury questionnaire that she didn't trust most politicians.
"You aren't going to be asked to judge politicians as a whole," Zagel said. "You're going to be asked about two specific individuals."
Charged alongside Blagojevich is his brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, who was chairman of his campaign fund and is accused of not only scheming to sell the Senate seat but plotting to pressure a racetrack owner for a donation.
Zagel asked another woman, who said she worked in sales, about her remark on her questionnaire that she had strong opinions about politics.
"Positive or negative?" Zagel asked. She answered, "Negative."
An advertising coordinator for a community newspaper told Zagel: "I already believe Blagojevich to be guilty."
Zagel said he planned to begin hearing objections from attorneys on Friday about potential jurors questioned so far, which could lead to some being sent home.
Blagojevich did have some supporters on hand when he arrived for the first day of court. Flanked by his wife, Patti, the 53-year-old former governor greeted supporters at the courthouse door Thursday morning with smiles, handshakes and hugs.
Elsewhere, though, Republicans were obviously relishing the potential embarrassment of three to four months of tawdry testimony concerning alleged extortion and bribery schemes under the Democratic governor. The Illinois Republican Party launched theblagofiles.com to keep track of the testimony.
"It's a sad story that unfortunately must be told so we can fix our state," the Republicans said in a statement.
The trial threatens to be a major embarrassment for Democrats, playing out for months before November elections. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn — Blagojevich's former lieutenant governor — is trying to hang onto the state's top office and Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias is campaigning for the same Senate seat that is the focus of the corruption trial.
Major political names such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have been subpoenaed. And lawyers close to the case and White House officials have said White House advisers Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett have been subpoenaed as well. Neither of the two senators nor the two White House advisers has been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
Zagel planned to keep interviewing potential jurors at a rate of no more than 34 a day until the attorneys can settle on a final panel. He says that will happen in a few days.
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