By Jeff Coen and Bob Secter, Chicago Tribune reportersDecember 8, 2011
A contrite former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in federal prison, capping one of the state’s worst political scandals and humbling a controversial and defiant figure who rode into office as a champion of reform.
The sentence handed Blagojevich was the second-longest ever delivered in federal court in Chicago for a public corruption case. But U.S. District Judge James Zagel made it clear that the former governor’s position and the relentless history of corruption in Illinois demanded a harsh message.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired,” the judge lectured Blagojevich. “You did that damage.”
The sentence is more than double the prison time given to Blagojevich’s corrupt predecessor, George Ryan, and marks the fourth time since the 1970s that a former Illinois governor has been sent to prison for wrongdoing.
Blagojevich, who became the first Illinois governor impeached and involuntarily removed from office, is expected to turn himself in to start serving his sentence Feb. 16 — putting two Illinois governors in prison at the same time. Ryan is serving a 61/2-year prison term.
Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich won’t be eligible for release until early 2024, when he is 67 years old.
The former governor was sentenced after making a final plea to Zagel that saw him apologize to the court but seemingly stop just short of fully admitting he had done something criminal.
“I’m here convicted of crimes. The jury decided I was guilty,” Blagojevich said, leaning with both hands on the courtroom lectern in front of Zagel. “I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it and I, of course, am unbelievably sorry for it.”
Blagojevich’s voice sometimes halted as he attempted to keep his emotions in check. He apologized to the people of Illinois, saying he thought what he was doing was permissible, but he acknowledged he should have known better.
He also apologized to his brother, who left his home and business in Nashville to become his fundraising chief in 2008 and who was tried along with him last year. The first Blagojevich jury, which deadlocked on all but one count, was unable to reach a verdict against Robert Blagojevich, and prosecutors subsequently dropped the case against him.
And Blagojevich grew emotional as he apologized to his wife and daughters for the trouble he caused his family.
“My life is ruined,” he said. “I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and words and what I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody.”
In the first row of the courtroom, Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, sometimes leaned forward in tears in her seat as those around her tried to console her.
Blagojevich also expressed remorse for dragging so much of the case into the news media, sometimes publicly challenging the integrity of prosecutors on television.
“I’m accustomed to fighting back, and I did and it was inappropriate,” he said.
Zagel gave Blagojevich credit for accepting responsibility, saying he believed the former governor was “truthfully admitting his conduct.” The judge noted that Blagojevich’s acknowledgment was coming late, but Zagel said he was accounting for the difficulty Blagojevich likely had accepting responsibility sooner as a public figure.
The judge ruled, however, that Blagojevich’s pleas for mercy on behalf of his two children and wife did come too late.
“Why did devotion as a father not deter him from engaging in such reckless conduct? … Now it is too late,” Zagel said. “If it’s any consolation to his children, he does not stand convicted of being a bad father.”
Over the course of two trials, Blagojevich was convicted of 18 criminal counts involving the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, illegal shakedowns for campaign cash and lying to federal agents. Blagojevich’s excuses have ranged from saying he wasn’t stopped by a host of lawyers he had around him to arguing he never intended there to be a quid pro quo for the Senate seat.
“The jury did not believe him, and neither did I,” Zagel said.
The judge said Blagojevich was warned by his advisers, noting that his chief counsel and chief of staff cautioned him not to even joke about trading the Senate seat for something for himself. Undercover recordings captured Blagojevich trying to get an ambassadorship or high-paying job in exchange for appointing Obama friend Valerie Jarrett to the seat. Later, he sent his brother to see about a promise of $1.5 million in campaign cash for appointing U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. to the Senate.
During testimony at his second trial last summer, Blagojevich had tried to dismiss the recorded discussions as his “lengthy musings” about what to do with the Senate seat. Zagel slapped that idea down as well. “Musings are talks without purpose,” the judge said.
The defense asked for a sentence well below Ryan’s, but Zagel settled on a term just slightly below the 15 to 20 years sought by prosecutors.
Blagojevich’s lawyers left the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse without commenting Wednesday, but lead attorney Sheldon Sorosky promised an appeal.
A group of jurors from Blagojevich’s two trials who attended Wednesday spent about 20 minutes together meeting with Zagel after the sentence was imposed, discussing among other things whether the sentence would be a deterrent, they said.
Like others in the group, juror Karin Wilson said she thought Blagojevich’s remarks to the court fell short.
“I was glad to hear him accept some responsibility as far as being sorry for his family,” she said. “I still don’t think I heard him say, ‘What I did was illegal, what I did was wrong.’”
In his remarks Wednesday before the judge imposed sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar railed against Blagojevich, calling the former governor a manipulative and clever criminal who tried to talk his way out of a conviction by lying in court over seven days on the witness stand during the second trial.
“It didn’t work,” said Schar, who labeled Blagojevich as corrupt from the time he first took the oath of office until the day of his arrest three years ago Friday.
The prosecutor scoffed at the defense notion that there was no harm done to the state by Blagojevich’s actions because he didn’t pocket any money in the schemes he was trying to carry out. Schar said Blagojevich held up funding to pediatric hospitals in the state while he tried to get a campaign donation from the CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital.
But most shockingly, Blagojevich left open a Senate seat while he bartered to get something for himself, Schar said. It was at a time in the fall of 2008 when the economy was struggling and votes of national significance were taking place in the Senate, Schar said.
“Illinois was left with one vote,” Schar said. “The defendant’s criminal activity corrupted the decision-making process of Illinois.”
Schar asked Zagel to send a message of deterrence to other public officials.
“The people have had enough,” he said. “They’ve had enough of this defendant. They’ve had enough of those who are corrupt like him. … They should have the highest expectations that their elected leaders will honor that faith the people put in them.”
In a news conference after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the 14-year prison term should have any public official thinking twice about corruption.
“In any state it would be awful if two governors were convicted in a century, yet we’ve seen it happen twice in five years,” Fitzgerald said. “This needs to stop.”
In addition to Ryan, two other recent Illinois governors, Otto Kerner and Dan Walker, as well as dozens of other public officials, from Chicago aldermen to Illinois lawmakers to congressmen and prominent suburban officials, have been sent to prison in recent decades.
As for Blagojevich, he was right back in front of television cameras on his way out of court, saying he wanted to go home to his daughters to explain to them what it all meant.
But ever one to lean on a memorized quote, the former governor went right back to a Rudyard Kipling poem he had recited for the media in the first news conference he gave after he was charged in 2008. The verse is about being strong in the face of adversity.
“If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same,” Blagojevich said.