CHICAGO -- An attorney for Rod Blagojevich tried to undermine the credibility of a key prosecution witness in the ousted Illinois governor's corruption retrial on Monday, getting a former top aide to acknowledge that he lied to authorities just after he was arrested.
It also became clear early on that Blagojevich's attorney Aaron Goldstein -- through his questions -- was attempting to build on his contention in opening statements that Blagojevich was not conspiring to do anything criminal, but was just talking.
Under cross-examination, former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris acknowledged that he lied to the FBI shortly after he and the then-governor were arrested in December 2008 and that he had reached an agreement with federal prosecutors that called for them to recommend a shorter prison sentence if he testified truthfully.
Goldstein alluded to the "just talk" argument several times when he began to ask about FBI wiretap recordings of Harris and Blagojevich allegedly talking about seeking to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
"Is it fair to say most of this was just shooting the breeze about politics?" he asked Harris, prompting prosecutor Carrie Hamilton to object.
How successful Goldstein was in working in arguments via his questions was unclear, since the judge sustained the objection. Prosecutors objected nearly 100 times during just the first few hours of cross examination. Judge James Zagel sided with the government almost every time.
Goldstein is known for grilling witnesses. But while he was persistent Monday, he struck a measured tone, never raising his voice at Harris.
At the defense table, a serious-looking Blagojevich kept his eyes fixed on Harris, occasionally pausing to take notes.
Under questioning by Goldstein, Harris conceded that only the prosecutors and not Goldstein would determine whether Harris had told the truth on the witness stand - questions clearly meant to imply that Harris could only get that deal if he said what prosecutors wanted him to say.
Harris' matter-of-fact testimony last week focused almost wholly on the Senate seat allegations. With Harris on the stand, prosecutors played dozens of secret recordings of him and his boss allegedly plotting to sell or trade the Senate seat.
Goldstein revisited those allegations, with Harris testifying that he told Blagojevich that a public relations executive had told him that Obama's friend Valerie Jarrett and friends of hers would be grateful if Blagojevich appointed her for the vacant Senate seat.
Harris relayed the executive's comments that choosing Jarrett would mean that "fundraising support would be more forthcoming" if Blagojevich chose Jarrett.
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 charges at the retrial, all of them underpinned by FBI wiretap evidence. He denies any wrongdoing. Blagojevich's initial trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one charge. They convicted him of lying to the FBI.
Harris, 49, was arrested on the same day as Blagojevich and opted for a plea deal. His sentence could be as short as half of the maximum sentence of 87 months in prison.
Prosecutors likely concluded Harris is one of their best witnesses - based on the fact that they put him on the stand right away. At the first trial, they called him to testify only after two weeks. His testimony also puts the spotlight immediately on the high-profile Senate seat allegation.