CHICAGO — A federal judge dashed indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's reality TV dream Tuesday, refusing to give the ousted Democrat permission to travel to Costa Rica to tape a show in the jungle.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel refused to modify terms of Blagojevich's bail to allow him to leave the United States, saying he needs to remain in the country to help his attorneys formulate a strategy for his defense.
The judge said that would give Blagojevich a better sense of the gravity of the legal problems he faces — including allegations he tried to auction off President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
"I don't think this defendant fully understands and I don't think he could understand ... the position he finds himself in," Zagel sat during Tuesday's the hearing.
As he left the courthouse, Blagojevich told the media and spectators that he's "going to play a very big role, a significant role" in his defense.
"I'm fully aware of what the allegations are and I know what the truth is concerning me and I know that I've done absolutely nothing wrong," Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich had sought permission to appear on NBC's "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!" — a program similar to "Survivor." Contestants will be plopped down in the Costa Rican jungle to perform sweaty physical tasks and scheme to avoid elimination.
Blagojevich attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Zagel the TV program would pay for security to make sure the former governor didn't flee if he were allowed to go to Costa Rica. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar said there was no way to predict whether Blagojevich would stay in Costa Rica or try to flee. Schar said Blagojevich may be facing 25 to 30 years behind bars if convicted, a strong incentive to run.
NBC said in a statement issued Tuesday that it is disappointed that Blagojevich cannot go to Costa Rica to tape the show. The network added that it won't move the show to the U.S. to accommodate him. An attorney representing Blagojevich's brother in the corruption case said NBC had been contacted about possibly moving the show.
The TV show proposal was just the latest spotlight-seeking move from Blagojevich. Since his arrest, he has announced a deal to write a book, hosted a Chicago radio talk show and made the New York talk show circuit, chatting it up with everyone from David Letterman to the women of "The View."
Zagel held off ruling on whether Blagojevich may tap his $2 million campaign fund to pay lawyers but indicated he may be leaning toward giving approval. Zagel scheduled a May 1 hearing on the issue.
Blagojevich, 52, is charged with scheming to sell Obama's former Senate seat, attempting to extort campaign money from companies seeking state business and plotting to use the governor's office to pressure the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers who called for his impeachment.
The accusations led to his ouster as governor, but he has pleaded not guilty to all charges and denied any wrongdoing.
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 after, authorities said, he was heard on FBI wiretaps discussing swapping the Obama seat for a Cabinet post, a new job or campaign money. Illinois lawmakers impeached him and booted him from office in January.
A federal grand jury returned a 19-count indictment April 2 that accuses him and five others of corruption beginning before Blagojevich even took office.
Blagojevich faces charges including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion, and making false statements. Most of the charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Sorosky, a longtime friend and currently Blagojevich's one-man defense team, has said he is seeking prosecutors' permission to tap Blagojevich's campaign fund to pay additional attorneys because much more legal muscle is needed to mount an adequate defense. He has said that even with the campaign fund Blagojevich doesn't have sufficient funds to pay for lawyers.