How hiring R. Kelly's lawyers will help Rod Blagojevich.

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Dec. 23 2008 1:37 PM

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 (left) and Sam Adam Jr. Click image to expand.
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."

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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.

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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."

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