Blago’s Legal Eagles

They’re the guys who defended R. Kelly. Can they get the Illinois governor off the hook, too?

Rod Blagojevich’s lawyers, Ed Genson and Sam Adam Jr.

“It’s kind of lonely right now,” Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Friday in his first press conference since being arrested on federal corruption charges. “But I have on my side the most powerful ally there is, and it’s the truth.” Blagojevich and the truth aren’t going it completely alone—last week, the governor brought on Chicago defense attorneys Sam Adam Jr. and Edward Genson. Genson, it seems, is billing by the analogy: So far he’s compared the impeachment hearings now taking place in the Illinois Legislature to a witch hunt, a dog-and-pony show, a fairy tale, and Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, Adam Jr. has dismissed the idea that Blagojevich needs to apologize to the people of Illinois: “He’s not going to apologize for fighting for sick children. He’s not going to apologize for making sure that senior citizens get prescription drugs.”

Blagojevich didn’t just hire these guys for their rhetorical curlicues. This is the legal team that last got together to defend another notorious Illinoisan who’d been allegedly caught on tape committing illegal acts: R. Kelly. During Kelly’s child pornography trial earlier this year, I watched the grandiloquent Adam Jr. lay out theory after theory—the Shaggy defense, the Little Man defense, and the ghost sex defense, among others—to explain why the R&B lothario didn’t produce or star in a sex tape that featured a person who looked exactly like R. Kelly and was filmed in Kelly’s log-cabin-themed basement. It worked. With Genson playing the attack dog (“I am not your sweetie,” he snapped at one prosecution witness) and Adam Jr. riffing on everything from the Wayans Brothers to Hannah Montana, the jury found Kelly not guilty of all charges.

Genson has been defending Chicago’s most notorious characters since R. Kelly himself was underage. When an Illinois politician gets into trouble—and that happens pretty much every hour, on the hour—the disheveled Genson shambles in to save the day, cane and motor scooter in tow. (The 67-year-old lawyer has a neuromuscular disease.) In the last decade and a half, he defended aides to Blagojevich’s predecessor George Ryan against corruption charges (with mixed success), got a state representative acquitted of “ghost payrolling,” and saw client Rep. Mel Reynolds get convicted of having sex with a teenage campaign worker. The 35-year-old Adam Jr., who counts Genson as a mentor, doesn’t have as many convicted pols on his speed dial, but he’s known in Chicago as a defense attorney on the rise, a first-class orator with a gift for connecting with jurors.

In the R. Kelly case, Genson and his team got the singer’s past history of sexual contretemps deemed inadmissible, helping to ensure their client’s victory before testimony even began. Once things got under way, Genson’s copious motions and objections ensured that the trial would proceed on his terms. Unfortunately for Genson, Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment hearing isn’t a criminal trial, and the state’s Impeachment Inquiry Committee isn’t bound by judicial rules of evidence. So far, the vast majority of his requests—to get the “illegal” impeachment hearing halted, to get three legislators barred from the proceedings because of supposed bias against Blagojevich, to be granted the power to subpoena witnesses—have been hastily denied by the committee chair. Stripped of his mastery of legal minutiae, Genson is like an extraterrestrial a long way from his home planet. This has been the source of some amusement for the assembled state legislators. “It’s fun to watch my dog chase her tail,” noted Rep. Bill Black, “but I’m not sure the dog gets anywhere.”

Why would Blagojevich send his brain trust to Springfield, Ill., when their lawyering is going to be ignored? On Friday, the governor said, “I will fight, I will fight, I will fight.” His attorneys’ goal, though, is to stall, stall, stall. While getting R. Kelly acquitted was an impressive feat, his defense team’s success in delaying the trial for six years was even more remarkable. By the time the case went to trial, Kelly’s alleged victim was no longer underage and looked much different than she had way back in the early 2000s—likely a huge factor in the prosecution’s decision not to call her to the stand. (There was also the fact that the alleged victim denied it was her on the tape.)

It’s unlikely that Genson and Adam Jr. will be able to drag out the impeachment until Blagojevich’s term ends in January 2011. Genson did succeed on Monday, however, in putting the brakes on the hearings for a week so he can put together a list of potential witnesses. How long could the Illinois House’s gubernatorial roast go on? When asked last week when the governor might conceivably step aside, Adam Jr. said: “I can’t tell you that, four or five days before Christmas. Three or four days before Easter, we may have a better idea, here. So when the Easter Bunny comes knocking, we may have an announcement to make.”

No matter how much Genson and Adam Jr. are able to stall, it’s not likely they’ll win the day—after all, the state House voted 113-0 to convene an investigation. Most likely, the lawyers are using the impeachment proceedings to get an early start on the criminal trial, both in preparing their defense and in poisoning public opinion against the prosecution. In an interview on MSNBC, Genson spent a bit of a time criticizing the handling of the impeachment. (The committee has “absolutely no concept what they’re doing,” he argued.) Mostly, though, he belittled Patrick Fitzgerald’s case. “In order to violate the law you have to do something besides talk,” Genson said. “And that’s all that we heard on those tapes, are snippets, thousands of hours worth of tape where people talked. But the bottom line is, nobody did anything, nobody took any money, nobody asked for any money, nobody got any advantage.”

There was a lot more than talking going on in the tape at issue in the R. Kelly trial. Nevertheless, the methods that Genson and Adam Jr. used to fend off a sex tape offer some guidance on what we can expect in the Blagojevich case. First, the lawyers tried to get it thrown out. Up until the first day of the trial, they furiously filed motions to prevent the jury from seeing the tape, arguing that it would be unfairly prejudicial. When that didn’t work, they tried to distract attention from the tape by attacking the credibility of everyone who touched it or testified to its authenticity: Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis, the alleged victim’s aunt Stephanie “Sparkle” Edwards, and one-time Kelly paramour Lisa Van Allen. And then, of course, came the flat-out denials: the Shaggy defense (it’s not R. Kelly on the tape) and the Little Man defense (someone used digital trickery to put R. Kelly on the tape).

Genson has already implemented Phase One of his tape-management plan. On Thursday, he told the impeachment committee that it shouldn’t consider anything in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich because the wiretaps were “illegally obtained.” (When a representative from Chicago begged to differ, Genson answered back, “Your opinion is wrong, with all due respect.”) He has also launched pre-emptive strikes at those who’ve made statements about Blagojevich’s wrongdoing, like Illinois Finance Authority head Ali Ata and Democratic fundraiser Joseph Cari. “Mr. Ata is a convicted perjurer,” Genson said. “Mr. Cari is an extortionist.” (Just like in the Kelly case, Genson is trying to take advantage of the fact that his client consorts with some unseemly fellows.)

On the other hand, it seems unlikely that Genson and Adam Jr. will take the Shaggy defense for another spin—it’ll be hard to argue that it’s not Blagojevich’s voice on the thousands of hours of audio tape. The Little Man defense, too, seems like a nonstarter, as it seems preposterous (even for Adam Jr.) to suggest that Fitzgerald spliced together innocuous small talk to make it sound like the governor was up to no good. But as Jack Shafer has written, the FBI’s criminal complaint doesn’t appear unassailably strong. While the document’s audio excerpts make it clear that Gov. Blagojevich is guilty of being a major sleazeball, there’s no indication that he ever followed through on making a corrupt deal.

For now, Genson and Adam Jr. must be content with grandstanding for the press and for a state Legislature that doesn’t care what they say. But when a federal grand jury returns an indictment against Blagojevich, they’ll have access to the government’s unexcerpted recordings and reams of other documents. Once all that material is in hand, the real lawyering will begin. My best guess at Adam Jr.’s opening statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, you all heard what the governor said—’I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing.’ The prosecution would like you to believe that he was talking about Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Nothing could be further from the truth. Over the next eight weeks, we will prove to you unequivocally that he was talking about one thing and one thing only: his beautiful, beautiful hair.” Case closed.