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April 7, 2010 11:51 AM

Campaign Cash Low, Blago May Tap Taxpayers to Cover Legal Tab

Posted by Brian Baxter

A little more than a year ago, ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had $2.8 million in campaign funds available to pay the legal costs associated with defending himself against federal corruption charges. Today, the Chicago Sun-Times reports, despite a judge capping defense lawyers' fees in the case at $110 per hour, Blagojevich has just $1.4 million left. And, the Sun-Times reports, if the newly minted reality TV star's campaign cash runs out, taxpayers will get stuck paying a portion of his legal bills.

When Blagojevich was hit with federal corruption charges in December 2008, we wondered whether the former governor would be able to tap his campaign finance fund. A few months later a federal judge agreed to let Blagojevich dip into his campaign reserves, but with a catch: hourly billing rates for defense counsel couldn't exceed $110 per hour.

That ruling scared away most large firms--if they weren't already spooked by the on-again, off-again nature of some of the attorneys taking the erratic ex-governor's side--eventually leading to Chicago solo practitioners Sheldon Sorosky and Michael Gillespie, and father-and-son duo Samuel Adam and Sam Adam, Jr., comprising the defense team. (Onetime mob lawyer Allan Ackerman left the legal team in January.)

Despite the cap on hourly rates, defense lawyers told the Sun-Times that the chances Blagojevich wouldn't need to tap public funds leading up to his planned trial this summer were virtually nil.

"Zero," Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor and current managing partner of Schiff Hardin, told the Sun-Times when asked if Blagojevich's $1.4 million in funds would last through his trial. "It won't cover costs," he said. "They will go to public funds."

Safer and Schiff Hardin know firsthand the amount of legal work involved in preparing for a case against the "A-Team" from the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago run by Patrick Fitzgerald. The firm advised the Office of the Illinois Governor in its cooperation with federal prosecutors investigating Blagojevich and his former chief of staff, John Harris, who pled guilty last July and is now cooperating with the government.

Blagojevich's campaign fund has so far made payments to six lawyers and 23 consultants and experts, reports the Sun-Times, citing numbers obtained from the federal clerk's office for the Northern District of Illinois. Robert Blagojevich, the ex-governor's brother who is facing related federal charges, is paying his own lawyer, Michael Ettinger from Palos Heights, Ill.-based Ettinger, Besbekos & Schroeder.

Sorosky told the Sun-Times that working for $110 an hour has been a sacrifice for all of Blagojevich's lawyers. "All our secretaries and landlords want to be paid," he said. "$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."

With the hours for lawyers and other staff likely ratcheting up in the prelude to trial, Sam Adam, Jr., told the Sun-Times that he didn't think the public would need to pay anywhere near the $500,000 in defense costs estimated to be left over after Blagojevich's campaign funds run out.

Blagojevich took a hit on a different front this week, getting booted off NBC's Celebrity Apprentice by host Donald Trump after he had trouble leading his team on a recent assignment.

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