Rod Blagojevich's onetime top aide testified on Tuesday that he was asked by the disgraced former Illinois governor how much Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat might be worth.
The conversation took place in October 2008, about a month before Obama won the presidency, and former gubernatorial chief of staff John Harris said it was his first inkling that Blagojevich might try to sell the seat instead of appointing himself to the post.
"'What do you think I can get for this?'" Harris recalled Blagojevich asking him.
Harris said he responded to Blagojevich by saying: "For you, nothing. But you can reward an ally or make an ally."
"It was the first time he was thinking of someone other than himself to appoint," said Harris, who took the stand in federal court on the first day of testimony in the former governor's second corruption trial.
In FBI recordings played in court, Blagojevich and Harris discuss the Senate seat days before the early November 2008 election. Harris had learned from incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel that Obama aide Valerie Jarrett was Obama's favored choice to fill his Senate seat.
"Do they think I would appoint Valerie Jarrett for nothing? Just to make them happy?" Blagojevich was heard saying. He asked Harris to propose to the incoming administration that he be the next U.S. secretary of health and human services.
Harris told him a Cabinet post was unlikely, and a few days later the two discussed Blagojevich being named an ambassador or an executive at a foundation.
"OK, I'm interested, How about India, South Africa," Blagojevich said. "Start looking at foundations ... See what they pay."
Blagojevich's first trial ended in August with the two-term Democrat convicted of a single count of lying to investigators. The first jury deadlocked on more serious charges, and prosecutors are retrying Blagojevich on 20 counts, some of which carry prison terms of up to 20 years upon conviction.
Harris, who was the governor's chief of staff from 2005 until he and Blagojevich were arrested in December 2008, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in which he admitted to bribery conspiracy. Blagojevich was thrown out of office in early 2009 by the state Legislature.
Defense attorneys have portrayed Blagojevich as a politician who talked a lot but did not collect any illegal donations or favors.
Prosecutors have said Blagojevich conspired to trade the Senate seat for a Cabinet post or campaign donations, and tried to leverage donations or favors for other official acts.
Under questioning by prosecutor Carrie Hamilton, Harris said Blagojevich exhibited a "sense of urgency" about raising campaign cash before an ethics law took effect in 2009. The law barred campaign donations from anyone who had a state contract worth $25,000 or more.
Blagojevich was running up legal bills and other expenses that were depleting his campaign fund, and he was worried it would be seen as a sign of political weakness, Harris said.
People were already "shying away from the governor" because of newspaper reports Blagojevich was under investigation, Harris said.
He also said Blagojevich had earlier held up a state grant to a Chicago school sought by then-Congressman Emanuel. Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago in February of this year.
Prosecutors charge Blagojevich wanted Emanuel's brother, a Hollywood talent agent, to arrange fund-raising events. Later, Blagojevich approved the $2 million school grant without getting fund-raising help.
Blagojevich also put off approving $7 billion for state toll roads while he sought to leverage campaign donations from road builders, Harris said. Ultimately, Blagojevich approved the $1.8 billion project.