Judge Sentences Blagojevich to 14 Years on Corruption Charges

December 07, 2011

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media and The Associated Press)

Rod Blagojevich has been sentenced to 14 years in prison.

"Every governor, even our worst, helped someone and does good things for people," federal Judge James Zagel said to the former Illinois governor. "The harm [of your crimes] is the erosion of public trust in government."

Before leaving the court building, Blagojevich stopped to briefly address a crowd of TV cameras. He quoted from the Rudyard Kipling poem "If," and spoke of fighting adversity and having to explain the sentence to his children. Blagojevich took no questions from reporters and, upon leaving, simply said: "See ya soon."

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the sentence "sends a strong message that the public has had enough, and that judges have had enough."

"To put it very, very simply, we don't want to be back here again," Fitzgerald told reporters. "And the message that needs to go out to officials who are thinking about being corrupt, is that the consequences - not just for the state, but for people who go corrupt themselves - are severe."

With credit for good behavior, Blagojevich would serve about 12 years of the 14-year sentence.

Zagel announced the sentence just over an hour after Blagojevich stood before the judge and pleaded for mercy, apologizing profusely for his actions.

"I thought they were permissible and I was mistaken. The jury convicted me. Those were my actions. Those were things that I said, " Blagojevich told Zagel, in a soft, though not shy, voice. "I caused it all. I'm not blaming anybody. I was the governor and I should have known better. And I am - I am - just so incredibly sorry."

"I have nobody to blame for myself, for my stupidity," he said.

Blagojevich also told Zagel his defiant tone throughout his legal troubles meant no disrespect to the judge, the federal court system, or to prosecutors. And he apologized for many of those statements.

"And I want to now do my final apology, and that is to my family," Blagojevich said. "My life is ruined - at least now - my life is in ruins. My political career is over. I can't be a lawyer again. We can't afford the home we live in."

Earlier in the hearing, a federal prosecutor called Blagojevich "manipulative" and said his criminal acts were "perverse" and resulted in "real harm."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar argued that Blagojevich should go to prison for 15-to-20 years. Schar told Zagel that a message needs to be sent to Blagojevich, to other politicians and to the people of Illinois that corruption will not be tolerated.

"You, judge, and you alone, are the only one that can send that message and we ask you to do so," Schar said.

The judges' rulings and comments during Tuesday's portion of the hearing indicated he was unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. Zagel sided with prosecutors that federal sentencing guidelines call for Blagojevich's punishment to fall in the 30-to-life range.

But, like prosecutors, Zagel said Tuesday 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."

Still, Zagel agreed with prosecutors that Blagojevich was the leader of the conspiracy, 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."

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, including that he attempted to leverage his power to appoint a U.S. senator for personal gain, and held other government action hostage in exchange for campaign contributions.

During Blagojevich's first trial the previous summer, jurors deadlocked on all nearly all the charges. The sole exception was a guilty verdict for lying to federal agents.

Blagojevich's lawyers calculated the federal sentencing guidelines for these convictions at roughly 3-to-4 years, though on Tuesday they asked for the "lowest sentence that the law allows."

"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."

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 said.

The defense also said Blagojevich's sentencing should take into account his record as governor. They called a pediatrician to the stand who testified that the "All-Kids" insurance program championed by Blagojevich provides a critical public health service.

The ex-governor's attorneys also played for the court recorded comments from an elderly woman who benefited from a free transit benefit for seniors that Blagojevich muscled through the legislature.

After Judge James Zagel handed down the sentence and the public was ushered out of the courtroom, more than an hour passed before the ex-governor, his wife and his lawyers appeared in the lobby of the court building.

Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein saidin that private time "there was a lot of silence." Goldstein said the legal team will appeal the governor's sentence, and his conviction...

"We're going to appeal everything," Goldstein said.

The appeal process, according to Goldstein, could take years.

A legislator who served on the Illinois House committee that drew up articles of impeachment against Rod Blagojevich said he feels prison sentence was appropriate. State Rep. Chapin Rose (R- Mahomet) said he wasn't very impressed by the apology that Blagojevich gave at his sentencing hearing.

'You know, if he was truly remorseful or truly admitted his guilt, he could have stepped down as governor back when he had his chance before putting the state of Illinois through that indignity of having people wake up every morning seeing headlines of his impeachment trial, and having to do it two more times during his criminal trials," Rose said.

Rose said the prison sentences given to Blagojevich and former Gov. George Ryan before him represent a "lost decade" in Illinois government. But he said it is time now for state officials to move forward and address the problems facing the state.

Champaign Democratic Senator Mike Frerichs says sentence should deter any similar behavior by future elected officials. But a statement by Illinois GOP chairman isn't sitting well with Frerichs. Pat Brady says Blagojevich's enablers continue to 'burden the people of Illinois' with financial mismanagement and higher taxes.'

Frerichs says corruption has not been a partisan issue, noting that governors of both parties will now each spend time in prison.

"And I think that it's true we ought to now focus more on solving particular problems in the state of Illinois, and solving them in a bipartisan manner," Frerichs said. "I think that using this as an opportunity to score political points is probably a misspent opportunity."

Champaign Republican House member Jason Barickman says some semblance of responsibility lies with the voters, particularly with those who voted Blagojevich into office for a second term. He says Democratic Party officials continue to rally around the former governor despite public allegations against Blagojevich, putting party before any ethical responsibility.

"The point is, for all of us that are new (Barickman was appointed to the House in November 2010), we need to contantly remind ourselves that we are in a role of serving the public, and that the actions that we take should be scrutinized," Barickman said.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said justice was served in the sentencing of Blagojevich. He said the sentence magnifies the importance of preventing corruption in Illinois.

"Sometimes the only way you send a message to the public as well as those in public office is to have a very stiff sentence when someone commits a crime, and that's what happened here," Quinn said.

Quinn served as Blagojevich's lieutenant governor and took over for Blagojevich after state lawmakers barred him from public office. He created a commission tasked with rooting out political corruption after the Blagojevich scandal.

Dick Simpson, chair of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the prison sentence presents an opportunity to stop political corruption. Simpson said the sentence sends a strong message to other lawmakers who might be abusing their powers.

"The sentence was appropriate for the crime, but it will not be able to deter future corruption," Simpson said. "We have to do much more than to convict individual officials. There have been more than 1,500 convicted in the last 40 years, and that hasn't to date stopped corruption."

Simpson said he would like to see stronger campaign finance laws, and a requirement that public school teachers tell their students about the cost of corruption in government.

Blagojevich must turn himself in on Feb. 16 of next year. Most of the prisons where he could end up are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Ryan is serving his own sentence. In prison, Blagojevich will largely be cut off from the outside world. Visits by family are strictly limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job - possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors - at just 12 cents an hour.


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(Graphic by Elliott Ramos/IPR)

Story source: AP