When a federal appeals court overturned five of the charges against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the three-judge panel seemed to draw a line on what’s considered corruption.
What isn’t, in their minds: attempting to trade one political act for another.
That holds particular significance to John Harris, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff. Harris pleaded guilty to a single charge in the Blagojevich corruption case: conspiring to commit solicitation.
That happens to be one of the five charges that the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on appeal by the former governor, ordering prosecutors to retry or proceed directly to resentencing.
So did Harris plead guilty to something that wasn’t actually illegal?
In 2010, Harris admitted taking part in secretly wiretapped discussions with Blagojevich about trading an appointment to the U.S. Senate for a personal job.
Blagojevich hoped he could extract an ambassadorship, cabinet appointment from then President-elect Barack Obama, or a union job, in exchange for naming Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett to fill Obama’s old Senate seat.
After Jarrett pulled out of contention, Blagojevich considered trading the appointment for what he believed to be a $1.5 million offer from supporters of then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
Harris, though, was kept out of conversations involving money.
“We conclude…a proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment,” the appeals court said in its opinion in the Blagojevich case. “A proposal to appoint a particular person to one office (say, the Cabinet) in exchange for someone else’s promise to appoint a different person to a different office (say, the Senate), is a common exercise in logrolling. We asked the prosecutor at oral argument if, before this case, logrolling had been the basis of a criminal conviction in the history of the United States. Counsel was unaware of any earlier conviction for an exchange of political favors. Our own research did not turn one up.”
That analysis seems to lean heavily in Harris’ favor.
But the court didn’t throw out the five charges. It reversed them based on the jury instructions that were given. Prosecutors could still retry Blagojevich on those counts.
So what recourse does Harris have now?
As part of his cooperation deal with federal prosecutors, Harris waived his right to an appeal.
Still, his attorney said there could be an opening. He could file a request with the trial judge, U.S. District Judge James Zagel, asking him to vacate Harris’ conviction.
“We’re looking at the decision from the Seventh Circuit very closely to see if there is any possibility of legal relief forJohn,” said Terry Ekl, Harris’ attorney.
But it isn’t clear Harris wants to go that route. That would reopen old wounds for Harris, a husband and father who has tried to put all of that behind him in recent years.
“Revisiting these issues from the past may or may not be something he wants to do,” Ekl said. “[He’s a] completely different animal than the former governor.”
Harris was arrested the same day as Blagojevich in 2008 and later pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors in which he agreed to give them his cooperation.
Even then, though, legal observers wondered whether Harris had gotten a raw deal.
Other witnesses in the case seemed to take part in the same or similar conduct as Harris but weren’t charged.
Harris provided critical testimony throughout Blagojevich’s first trial and also his retrial, giving prosecutors a road map to help jurors understand taped conversations. Unlike other witnesses who carried some baggage, jurors found Harris credible on the stand. He could be heard on tape urging Blagojevich against crossing the legal line. At other times, he appeased his boss by listening to his chatter but then didn’t carry out certain directives, knowing Blagojevich would soon be distracted and off on another rant.
Zagel sentenced Harris to just 10 days in jail, so a request to throw out a plea deal would have nothing to do with shaving off prison time.
Harris fought to win back his law license. In March, Illinois’ attorney disciplinary commission awarded it to him.
So what could Harris gain from a reversal?
“He’s not a convicted felon anymore. That’s a pretty big thing,” Ekl said.
Still, “IfJohnHarrisdid not get any relief, he’s still going to be fine. He’s got his license back, he has his family.”
But he’s still a convicted felon. And that, Ekl said, is “a pretty big thing.”
Follow Natasha Korecki on Twitter: @natashakorecki