From AP - News Headlines -

Judge Didn’t Believe Blagojevich Testimony

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

 

 

(Graphic by Elliott Ramos/IPR)

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich acknowledged the former Illinois governor committed crimes, while pleading for leniency at a sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Their presentation included a taped phone call featuring Blagojevich's family, and letters written by his wife and daughter.

"His family deserves mercy," attorney Aaron Goldstein told federal Judge James Zagel. "They are not the ones that have to be responsible for these crimes."

But Zagel's rulings and comments during the all-day hearing indicate he's unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. A decision could come as early as Wednesday, after the prosecution and Blagojevich himself get a chance to address the judge.

In an early blow to the defense, Zagel sided with prosecutors in his calculation of federal sentencing guidelines at 30 years-to-life. But, like prosecutors, Zagel said he believes such a prison term to be too harsh.

A sentence that long, he said, is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case."

Zagel also said he believes the former governor lied on the stand during his corruption trial this summer. Blagojevich was convicted on a total of 17 federal counts in that trial, and one more during a trial the previous summer.

About ten jurors total from both trials were in court for Tuesday's hearing. The crowd also included Blagojevich's wife, Patti, accompanied by her siblings, Rich Mell and state Rep. Deb Mell.

A Sentencing Guideline Loss for Blagojevich

The hearing began shortly after 10 a.m. with a prosecutor and a lawyer for Blagojevich debating how to calculate federal sentencing guidelines, which Zagel can use in determining how much time the former governor will spend in prison.

Prosecutors had argued the guidelines are in the 30-to-life range, but they are asking for a 15-to-20 year sentence. Blagojevich's lawyers calculated the guidelines at roughly 3-to-4 years, though on Tuesday they asked for the "lowest sentence that the law allows."

Speaking first, defense attorney Carolyn Gurland said Blagojevich was not a "leader-organizer" of a conspiracy, and so should not receive a bump in prison time prosecutors have argued for.

Blagojevich, Gurland said, "sought advice" from his cadre of advisors, rather than "directed" them to assist. She also noted that the advisors routinely lied to Blagojevich and ignored his requests.

In addition, she said Blagojevich's "utter stagnation" on a potential deal with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan regarding a U.S. Senate appointment for Madigan's daughter, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, proves the governor wasn't the leader that prosecutors are making him out to be.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar told Zagel that Blagojevich did make a decision on the Senate seat. Blagojevich wanted to appoint President Obama's confidante Valerie Jarrett, Schar contended, if he could receive a high-powered or lucrative job in return.

"He did decide," Schar said. "He just didn't get what he wanted."

Zagel sided with prosecutors, saying the argument that Blagojevich was being guided by others "is not consistent with what we heard on the [wiretap] recordings or in the testimony of the witnesses or - for that matter - what we heard from the defendant on the witness stand."

"There is no question that his tone of voice [on the recordings] was demanding," Zagel said. "He was not a supplicant."

The judge also agreed with prosecutors in determining the value of the bribes Blagojevich was seeking. Zagel opted to include in the calculation a potential $1.5-million campaign contribution from supporters of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., if Blagojevich appointed the congressman to the Senate.

This is the dollar amount in campaign contributions that Blagojevich stated on tape, his "recorded voice," as Zagel put it. "It was a price he put on it. A price he expected to receive."

Blagojevich's pursuit of benefits "wasn't successful," Zagel said. "But it was pretty relentless."

The judge ultimately agreed with prosecutors that a correct calculation of the sentencing guidelines puts Blagojevich in the range of 30 years-to-life. Nonetheless, Zagel said a sentence that long is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case."

"Came from Nothing"

After a break, the defense presented arguments, known as "mitigating factors," for a lenient sentence. Gurland said the 15-to-20 years the government was seeking is a "greater than necessary punishment," especially as Blagojevich pocketed "not a penny on the counts of conviction."

"Rod Blagojevich received nothing," Gurland said. "He asked for campaign contributions and appointments, not cash in envelopes."

Further, Gurland said, "It is not implausible that Mr. Blagojevich believed his actions complied with the law."

Moving from legal arguments to the defendant's biography, Gurland called her client a "kind and compassionate man." She described his upbringing by hard working parents.

At one point, Judge Zagel interrupted Gurland. He asked her about a statement Blagojevich apparently made in an interview with a federal probation officer, in which he said he "came from nothing."

"I don't understand it, this [kind of immigrant family story] is the backbone of America," Zagel said, noting the governor's parents raised two successful sons. "Why is this 'nothing'?"

Gurland replied that Blagojevich was likely referring to his parents' financial struggles, and meant no disrespect.

Earlier, the defense called to the stand a pediatrician, Dr. Deanna Monroe. Monroe testified that a state health insurance program started by Blagojevich, All-Kids, allowed children to get care whose families otherwise wouldn't be able to afford it.

Monroe also talked about the public health benefit of preventative care, including immunizations. And she said with high unemployment in recent years, "All-Kids has been a way for [people] to still cover their children."

The defense also played for the court recorded comments from an elderly woman who benefitted from a free transit benefit Blagojevich championed for senior citizens.

An 'Extraordinary' Father, and Potential Family 'Devastation'

Gurland went into detail of the "devastation that [Blagojevich's] absence would cause to his family."

The ex-governor always put his family first, she said. Gurland quoted a letter in which the principal at Blagojevich's daughters' school called her client a "loving and caring father." In another letter, Patti Blagojevich wrote that, "ironically," the kids are closer to their father today than they were before his arrest.

Zagel noted that similar family hardship arguments are often made during sentencing hearings before him, and asked Gurland how Blagojevich's situation was special. The lawyer replied that while she was preparing for this hearing, she witnessed how close the family was. "It is extraordinary."

To make this point further, Goldstein read a letter from the Blagojevich's oldest daughter, Amy, and played a phone call - caught on a government wiretap - of the entire Blagojevich family. It includes Patti reminding her husband to do the dishes.

This is "a very simple call that does show in real life terms the bond that is between Mr. Blagojevich and his family," Goldstein told the judge.

Speaking Out

Gurland sought to explain to the court Blagojevich's many and defiant public interviews following his arrest. She claimed that "even if Blagojevich had done and said nothing, the publicity wouldn't have gone away."

The ex-governor spoke up in his own defense, Gurland explained, so his family could "hold their heads up." And she said the most outrageous of public appearances, such as Patti's appearance on a reality show, were a financial necessity.

They were "paid handsomely to be made fun of and ridiculed," Gurland said, adding that the couple did not enjoy it.

What's Appropriate?

In their presentations, Goldstein and another Blagojevich lawyer, Sheldon Sorosky, acknowledge the ex-governor committed crimes.

When Blagojevich sought a job in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the Senate, "we accept the fact that's a crime," Sorosky said, adding that the crime does not call for a 15-year sentence.

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich acknowledged the former Illinois governor committed crimes, while pleading for leniency at a sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Their presentation included a taped phone call featuring Blagojevich's family, and letters written by his wife and daughter.

"His family deserves mercy," attorney Aaron Goldstein told federal Judge James Zagel. "They are not the ones that have to be responsible for these crimes."

But Zagel's rulings and comments during the all-day hearing indicate he's unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. A decision could come as early as Wednesday, after the prosecution and Blagojevich himself get a chance to address the judge.

Goldstein rattled off a long list of politicians and government employees convicted of crimes he described as "much worse" than Blagojevich's. That list included former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who received 6 1/2 years in prison. Ryan is still serving that sentence, at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Goldstein argued that a long sentence for Blagojevich would not deter public corruption, nor would a relatively short one encourage it.

"The amount of pain, humility and then punishment [received by Blagojevich] is plenty to deter...politicians [and] all law-abiding citizens," Goldstein said.

Zagel asked Goldstein if his client was asking for probation, as Goldstein had been quoted in news reports.

Goldstein said Blagojevich is asking only for the lowest sentence possible.

The judge said he's received letters from Blagojevich supporters asking for leniency, and others who requested the ex-governor get an extended period, perhaps ten years, of probation and community service.

Zagel said he dismissed such requests, noting such a sentence would "essentially impose a form of slavery on your client."

Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the defense wrapped up its presentation. Zagel said the hearing would resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The prosecution still must present its argument, and Blagojevich will also address the judge.