Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence should send the message that the public and judges are fed up with the state’s history of corruption, said the U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case.
Prosecutors had asked James B. Zagel in Chicago to lock up Blagojevich for 15 to 20 years, arguing it would deter future wrongdoing in a state where four of the nine most recent governors have been convicted for crimes committed before, during or after they held office. The twice-elected Democrat’s predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is serving a 6 1/2 year federal prison sentence after being convicted by a jury in the same courthouse in 2006.
“It is profoundly sad that we are here for the second time in five years to discuss the conviction and sentencing of a governor of Illinois,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at a press conference yesterday after Zagel sentenced Blagojevich. “This has to stop. To put it very, very simply: we don’t want to be back here again.”
Blagojevich’s case began three years ago and featured two separate trials over allegations that he sought to trade official acts for campaign cash and other favors, including his attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat Barack Obama gave up when he was elected president.
Blagojevich 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 Fitzgerald then called “a political corruption crime spree.”
The ex-governor, 54, was found guilty on 17 counts in a trial that ended in June. A previous jury had deadlocked on 23 of the 24 counts it considered, finding the ex-governor guilty of lying to federal agents. Prosecutors dropped three counts before the retrial.
“I accept the people’s verdict,” Blagojevich told the judge before he was sentenced. “They’ve found me guilty. All I can say is I’ve never wanted to hurt anyone.”
Attorneys for Blagojevich argued for leniency and mercy, telling the judge it would be unfair to make their client pay for the acts of those who came before him.
“There are sides to him that are not criminal, that are good, that are decent,” defense lawyer Aaron Goldstein told the court Dec. 6, citing initiatives by Blagojevich to create a children’s health insurance program and give free public transit rides to people age 65 and older.
In court yesterday, Blagojevich choked with emotion as he made a 20-minute statement and apologized to “the people of Illinois,” and to his family.
“I caused it all,” he said about his actions. “I’m not blaming anybody. I was the governor and should have known better. I am so incredibly sorry.”
“My life is in ruins,” Blagojevich said. “My political career is over.”
The judge had earlier rejected arguments by defense attorneys that Blagojevich was a follower and not a leader in his criminal scheme.
“The governor was not marched along this path by his staff,” Zagel said before he imposed the sentence. “He marched them.”
The jury found the ex-governor guilty of 10 wire fraud counts, two attempted extortion counts and two extortion conspiracy counts. He was also convicted of solicitation of bribery and two bribery conspiracy counts.
Blagojevich was ordered to report to prison Feb. 16.
‘Much Too Late’
His contrition came “much too late,” said Andy Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a Chicago-based watchdog group. That remorse was insufficient to avoid the longest sentence meted out to any politician in the state’s history, he said.
“There will still be corruption. There will still be bad behavior,” Shaw said in a courthouse lobby interview yesterday. “But I’m an optimist and I believe that a lot of public officials are going to think two times, three times or maybe 10 times before they engage in behavior that can be construed as illegal.”
Chicago-Kent College of Law Professor Richard Kling, who was in the courtroom for the sentence, later called the punishment serious and said it might have been more severe had the judge not credited the ex-governor’s show of remorse.
“For the first time, Mr. Blagojevich said, ‘OK, I’m responsible. I apologize to the community,’” Kling said.
At trial, jurors heard evidence that the ex-governor attempted to barter Obama’s Senate seat for campaign contributions; a Cabinet-level appointment in the incoming Obama administration; an ambassadorship; and an appointment to lead a nonprofit advocacy group.
In one recorded call, the governor said of the U.S. Senate seat, “I’ve got this thing,” which he called “golden,” according to court papers.
“I’m not just giving it up” for nothing, Blagojevich said. “I’m not going to do it.”
The jury also heard evidence Blagojevich tried to extract a $100,000 donation from a racetrack operator in exchange for signing beneficial legislation and $25,000 from a hospital executive by implying he’d might otherwise withhold a pediatric Medicaid reimbursement rate increase.
Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser 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.
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same,” Blagojevich said, quoting writer Rudyard Kipling, at a press conference after the sentencing. Kipling’s poem ends with the lines, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and-which is more-you’ll be a Man, my son!”
Blagojevich said he and his family would “keep fighting on through this adversity.” He will turn 55 on Dec. 10.
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08-cr-888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).