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Blagojevich lawyers wanted to play J.B. Pritzker tape at trials

A discussion between former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and J.B. Pritzker revealed the two discussed the merits of potential African American successors to Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat. | File photos

Wiretapped conversations between current gubernatorial candidate J.B. Pritzker and Rod Blagojevich have provided plenty of ammunition for the billionaire Democrat’s political rivals, but Blagojevich’s lawyers thought the former governor came off pretty well on tape.

In fact, they had wanted to play Pritzker and Blagojevich chatting about the various options for the then-governor to appoint to the U.S. Senate seat that came open in 2008, when Barack Obama left the post to take office as president, said Sheldon Sorosky, who was part of Blagojevich’s defense team for both the former governor’s trials.

The tapes, first published by the Chicago Tribune last week, capture Pritzker on the phone with Blagojevich in late 2008, as the then-governor weighed options for Obama’s seat. Blagojevich offered the slot to the billionaire, but Pritzker demurred, suggesting he would be more interested in the post of state treasurer if it were open. Pritzker also suggested to the governor that his prior campaign contributions might have made it look bad if Blagojevich were to tab him for any post.

“[The conversation] was absolutely legal,” Sorosky said this week while walking the hallways of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse. “That’s why we wanted to play them.

“An argument could have been made that, if Blagojevich was interested in money, and he was interested in someone taking the Senate seat, why not Pritzker? He’s a billionaire,” he said. “He had more money than anybody.”

U.S. District Judge James Zagel wouldn’t allow the tapes of the Pritzker-Blagojevich conversations into evidence, Sorosky recalls, ruling that they had nothing to do with the charges that Blagojevich was shopping the seat for his personal financial gain.

After two trials, neither of which featured the Pritzker tapes, Blagojevich was convicted of wide-ranging political corruption, including trying to sell off the Senate seat for a campaign donation or a cushy job once he left office. The former governor is serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison in Colorado.

Sorosky noted that Pritzker never made the $50,000 contribution Blagojevich solicited during the wiretapped call. The lawyer wasn’t sure that fact made for a compelling argument, but “it might have had a little appeal to the jury.”

It certainly has appealed to Pritzker’s rivals. His personal fortune— estimated at more than $3 billion — has made him a front-runner for the Democratic nomination, and since the story broke the state Republican party has sent out almost daily attacks based on the apparent backroom dealmaking.

On Tuesday, in an email blast to the press, GOP spokesman Steve Yaffe cited the wiretaps in a missive decrying Pritzker’s looming endorsement by a labor group as another insider deal.

“After all, J.B. Pritzker is already on tape showing his corrupt colors,” Yaffe wrote as the closing line to the press release.

Democratic contender Chris Kennedy also has hammered Pritzker over the cozy conversations with the convicted former governor, though the other primary candidates, including state Sen. Daniel Biss and Chicago Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), have stayed largely above the fray.

Sorosky said he’d forgotten about the conversations until they started making headlines last week.

“I did not give out [the tapes],” he said. “I don’t know if I still have them. I think we had to give them back to the government after the trial.”