Guest Column: Rod Blagojevich retrial not a waste of money

By James B. Burns

As the trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich enters a new chapter, I am struck by the claim that a retrial would be a waste of taxpayer dollars and the government’s resources.

As a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and as the current Inspector General for the Illinois Secretary of State, I know firsthand the importance of ferreting out corruption, unethical behavior and wrongdoing. The rule of the U.S. Attorney is to charge and prosecute federal crimes and to uphold justice.

Very simply, we can’t put a price tag on justice.

While it’s always important to be mindful of spending, the fact is the costs incurred by the U.S. Attorney’s office for any case are fixed—covering mostly the salaries of employees who investigate and prosecute cases.

What’s most important, however, is that justice is served. And, in this case, justice requires a retrial.

Some have argued that since Rod Blagojevich is now a convicted felon on a single count of lying to federal agents, the U.S. Attorney’s office should walk away from the case. I believe this would send the wrong message to the people of Illinois and to all elected officials.

The charges against Blagojevich are serious and repugnant. It is the responsibility of our state’s leaders to serve the people, not their own self-interests.

The jury voted 11-1 in favor of conviction on a majority of the counts and on at least one of the scheme counts, the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat.

This is not the first time a jury has been hung by one juror. Our judicial system takes this into account and allows for retrials.

We need to let the judicial system work. Conviction on the scheme counts would send a message to the public and other politicians that if government officials shake people down for contributions, even if unsuccessful, they will go to jail.

In my view, prosecutors will have to address two commonly-held misconceptions during the retrial. One is that many people believe money must actually change hands, or the deal must be completed, to be guilty of a conspiracy. This is not the law.

The other misconception is that Blagojevich’s approach to raising money is believed by many to be politics as usual in Illinois. This view also is wrong.

Most elected officials were offended by the actions of our former governor. They found his words and deeds despicable.

To change the perception of the pay-to-play culture in Illinois, government officials must be accountable, transparent and committed to fighting unethical behavior and wrongdoing. The combined efforts of strong leaders, effective prosecutors, independent inspectors general, the media, good government “watchdog” organizations and informed voters are essential.

Over the past decade, I have served as the Inspector General for the Illinois Secretary of State. I have been the fortunate recipient of a strong and continued commitment from Secretary of State Jesse White, who has provided my office with the necessary independence and resources required to root out corruption, restore integrity and change the culture of an office that had fallen under a cloud of controversy.

I look forward to watching the retrial and am confident that, in the end, justice will be served.

James B. Burns is the Inspector General for the Illinois Secretary of State’s office and  former U.S. Attorney from the Northern District of Illinois.

From the Sept. 1-7, 2010 issue

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