Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of trying to trade a U.S. Senate seat for personal favors or campaign cash, may face more prison time than the 6 1/2-year term his predecessor got for political corruption.
Blagojevich, a twice-elected Democrat who stood trial in Chicago for the second time, was found guilty yesterday by a federal jury on 17 counts, among them three crimes that carry prison sentences of as long as 20 years. A different jury in the same courthouse convicted the previous governor, Republican George Ryan, in 2006 on charges he traded political favors for gifts, trips and cash.
“It’s absolutely a possibility that Blagojevich would get a stiffer sentence,” said Jeffrey H. Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is now managing director of Kroll Inc.’s Chicago office. “This crime is more egregious. This is like the Ryan case on steroids.”
Blagojevich was convicted of all 11 charges relating to his efforts to barter President Barack Obama’s Senate seat for a Cabinet-level presidential appointment, leadership of a political advocacy group or donations to his Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund.
Jurors convicted the former governor of 10 wire fraud counts, two attempted extortion counts and two extortion conspiracy counts, each punishable by as many as 20 years in prison. He was also convicted of one of two solicitation of bribery counts, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and two bribery conspiracy counts, which carry top sentences of five years. A sentencing date hasn’t been set.
The panel of 11 women and one man acquitted the former governor on the other bribery solicitation count and were unable to agree on a verdict for two other attempted extortion counts.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office prosecuted the case, declined at a press conference yesterday to say how long a prison sentence he would seek in the Blagojevich case. Fitzgerald said the Ryan case showed that corruption isn’t tolerable.
“Governor Blagojevich did not get that message,” the prosecutor said. “Corruption is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. I hope that that message is heard this time.”
Cramer, in a phone interview yesterday, predicted Blagojevich will get a sentence of seven to 10 years in prison, citing the “extreme nature” of the crimes proven against him.
“Blagojevich was literally selling the state of Illinois one decision at a time,” said Cramer, who used to work under Fitzgerald.
Confined by Judge
U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel confined Blagojevich, 54, to the Northern District of Illinois.
“I frankly am stunned. There’s not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out,” Blagojevich, with his wife Patti at his side, said in a brief statement to the press after the verdict. He took no questions.
“We were thorough and detailed in examining all of the evidence for all 20 counts,” the jury’s forewoman told reporters in a press conference yesterday. Zagel ordered the panel members’ identities be kept anonymous until later today.
“We feel confident we reached a fair and just verdict,” the juror said. Opening statements in the trial were delivered May 2. The jury began deliberating on June 10.
The White House had no comment on the verdict, said Obama administration spokesman Josh Earnest.
Deadlocked Last Year
Jurors in Blagojevich’s first trial last year deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts, convicting Blagojevich on a single charge of lying to federal agents about whether he kept track of campaign contributions, a crime punishable by as many as five years’ imprisonment.
Prosecutors decided to retry him on 20 of the 23 remaining counts, dropping two racketeering-related charges and one wire fraud charge.
During her closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton displayed for the jury transcribed excerpts of Blagojevich conversations that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had recorded, which were played during the trial.
In a Nov. 10, 2008, conference call discussion with his wife, Patti, gubernatorial attorney Bill Quinlan and two other people, the former governor expressed frustration with the limitations of his post and the lack of any reward for nominating Obama friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett to fill the vacant Senate seat.
“Give this m----- f----- his senator? F--- him. For nothing? F--- him,” Blagojevich said.
“Nothing,” was all the prosecution proved, defense attorney Aaron Goldstein told jurors during his own closing remarks, emphasizing the U.S. hadn’t shown his client had received any money or benefit in any of the alleged schemes.
“What you’re hearing is a thought process, that is all,” he said of the Senate seat allegations. “He didn’t decide anything.”
Blagojevich, who presented no defense case in the first trial, testified for parts of seven days in the retrial, during which time he portrayed himself to jurors as a determined, if often defeated, dreamer who had shined shoes, delivered pizzas and worked on the Alaska Pipeline project.
He denied specific allegations made by the U.S. and clashed with Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar, who asked him if was true that he often lied when making public statements.
“I try to be as truthful as possible,” the ex-governor said.
The jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision on the charge that Blagojevich discussed withholding a $2 million grant from the Chicago Academy as leverage to compel Ari Emanuel, a Hollywood agent, to hold a campaign fundraiser. The school is located in what was then the congressional district of Emanuel’s brother, Rahm Emanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago. The grant was paid and the fundraiser wasn’t held, the U.S. says.
Jurors also failed to reach consensus on the charge that he tried to convince road-paving trade association executive Gerald Krozel that he wouldn’t sign off on a $5 billion construction program unless Krozel raised money for him. The jury acquitted Blagojevich of soliciting a bribe related to the Krozel allegations.
Jurors found Blagojevich was guilty of attempting to extract campaign contributions from a hospital executive and from a race track owner by creating the impression that his willingness to sign legislation favorable to each industry may hinge on their donations.
“Lady Justice is blind but she has very sophisticated listening devices,” said Robert Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Chicago office.
Grant said there was no better evidence for the jury than Blagojevich’s own voice on wiretap recordings obtained by the FBI and used against him at trial.
‘Did It Again’
“We know he’s human and has a family. It was very difficult,” one juror said of the deliberations. “I’d come in thinking okay, he’s not guilty and then all of a sudden be like, ‘gosh darn you Rod, you did it again. I mean, he proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty.”
Blagojevich, a former U.S. Representative from Chicago, was elected governor of the fifth-most populous U.S. state in 2002 and again in 2006.
He was impeached and removed from office by the state’s legislature in January 2009, one month after FBI agents arrested him at his home on charges he tried to barter Obama’s Senate seat.
“Once again, the former governor’s pattern of dishonesty has been confirmed,” Illinois Senate President John Cullerton said yesterday in an e-mail statement.
“I thank the jury for its public service,” Cullerton said. “Just as it was sad but necessary for the Senate to remove him from office, today is another sad event for Illinois. I would hope that this verdict would further allow us as a state to move on and ahead.”
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-00888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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