Blagojevich Set to Address Court Seeking Leniency for Corruption

Ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich
Ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of political corruption charges including the attempted sale of President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, faces sentencing by a federal judge. Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg

Ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of political corruption, is set today to address the judge who rejected his claim that he deserves leniency because he never collected money in exchange for official acts.

A lawyer for Blagojevich told U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel in Chicago yesterday that the 15- to 20-year prison term proposed by prosecutors for her client’s 18 convictions in two trials is too stiff considering he didn’t get the campaign contributions and other personal benefits he sought. The judge responded that the ex-governor intended to gain more than $1.6 million and must be held accountable for his efforts, including his attempt to sell Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat.

“The governor of Illinois had significant power to inflict penalties on those who did not pay,” Zagel said.

The judge said that while the twice-elected Democrat would be eligible under federal sentencing guidelines for a prison term of 30 years to life, a punishment that severe is “simply not appropriate within the context of this case.”

Blagojevich, 54, led the fifth-most populous American state from January 2003 until his impeachment and removal from office in January 2009. He was arrested a month earlier for what Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald then called “a political corruption crime spree.”

His sentencing hearing started yesterday and the judge is expected to impose a punishment today. Blagojevich’s lawyer, Carolyn Gurland, told Zagel yesterday that the defendant plans to address the court.

Gurland argued yesterday that the illegal monetary gain the government attributed to her client is too speculative and shouldn’t be a factor in his sentencing.

‘Received Nothing’

“Here, Mr. Blagojevich received nothing and was never going to receive anything,” Gurland said. She also contended that he was influenced by those he employed.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar countered that the issue was what Blagojevich wanted, not what he actually received.

Zagel rejected Gurland’s assertion her client was a follower and not a leader, and pointed to wiretapped recordings of the governor heard during his trial.

“Based on these tapes, I don’t think he was an easy man to stop,” said the judge, who was appointed to the bench in 1987 by Republican President Ronald Reagan.

History of Corruption

Gurland also implored the judge not to impose a harsh sentence simply because Illinois has a history of political corruption or because Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, received a prison term of only 6 1/2 years. Ryan, a Republican, was found guilty in 2006 of trading political favors for gifts, trips and cash.

“It’s not necessarily the right strategy to double down,” if the current approach to deterring such crime isn’t working, she said. “If it’s not working, don’t apply it more.”

Such an approach, Gurland said, is “demonstrably unfair to Mr. Blagojevich.”

Another defense attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, also pleaded for leniency, calling Blagojevich’s crimes “rather minimally wrong.”

“They’re not right, they’re minimally wrong compared with the outrageous conduct in these other cases,” he said, alluding to Ryan and other Illinois state and municipal officials who have been found guilty of past corruption.

‘Tragic Figure’

The defense, which called Blagojevich “a tragic figure” in a Dec. 1 court filing, contended the prison term should be no longer than 51 months, and argued for still less.

Prosecutors have said only a substantial punishment can deter potential future wrongdoers in a state where four of the most recent nine governors have been convicted for crimes committed before, during or after they held the office.

Blagojevich was indicted on 24 criminal counts in 2009. A jury in 2010 deadlocked on 23 of 24 charges, convicting him only of lying to federal agents.

Prosecutors dropped three counts before the retrial that ended with a new jury finding him guilty on 17 charges, including all 11 relating to the senate seat allegation. Jurors deadlocked on two counts and acquitted him on one.

They found the ex-governor guilty of 10 wire fraud counts, two attempted extortion counts and two extortion conspiracy counts, each punishable by as long as 20 years in prison. He was also convicted of solicitation of bribery, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and two bribery conspiracy counts, which carry top sentences of five years.

Tony Rezko

Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fund-raiser for Blagojevich and for Obama, received a 10 1/2-year sentence from a different Chicago federal judge on Nov. 22 for his role in a scheme to take kickbacks from firms receiving investment business from the state teachers’ pension system and from firms that could profit from the awarding of hospital construction certificates.

Prosecutors cited the Rezko and Ryan cases in a Nov. 30 court submission urging Zagel to “deter current and future public officials from engaging in Blagojevich-like criminal activity.”

“Blagojevich was the sitting governor of Illinois when he committed his crimes,” they said. “As the chief executive of the state, Blagojevich was in a special position of responsibility to the public. His abuse of office is particularly grave given the faith put in him by the citizens of Illinois.”

Steven A. Miller, a former federal prosecutor who is now a white-collar defense attorney, agreed in a phone interview last week.

“He’s going to receive a sentence that will take the oxygen out of the courtroom when it’s announced,” Miller, a partner in the Chicago office of Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith LLP. He predicted a 14-year term.

‘Reform Candidate’

“He ran as a reform candidate for governor,” said Miller, who served for 18 years as a federal prosecutor in Chicago, four of them leading a division in charge of prosecuting public corruption, before entering private practice in 1997.

“The hypocrisy is enormous,” he said.

Miller said the history of Illinois public corruption cases hasn’t abated criminal activity.

“There is a frustration in the courts,” he said. “It never seems to end.” Ryan’s sentence, he said, was probably too light and shouldn’t be used as benchmark for punishing Blagojevich.

James Montana, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, said he expects Blagojevich will get a 12-year term.

“Rezko got 10 and Rezko was not the public official,” the attorney said. “Something above 10 years but below 15 years ought to satisfy anyone’s sense of justice.”

The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE