CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich, the ousted Illinois governor whose three-year battle against criminal charges became a national spectacle, was sentenced to 14 years in prison today, one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a history of crooked politics.
Among his 18 convictions is the explosive charge that he tried to leverage his power to appoint someone to President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or land a high-paying job.
Judge James Zagel gave Blagojevich some credit for taking responsibility for his actions — which the former governor did in an address to the court earlier in the day — but said that didn’t mitigate his crimes. Zagel also said Blagojevich did some good things for people as governor, but was more concerned about using his powers for himself.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired,” Zagel said.
As the judge announced the sentence, Blagojevich hunched forward and his face appeared frozen. Minutes later, his wife, Patti Blagojevich, stood up and fell into her husband’s arms. He pulled back to brush tears off her cheek and then rubbed her shoulders.
The twice-elected Democrat is now the second former Illinois governor in a row to be sentenced to prison, and the fourth Illinois governor in the last four decades. His Republican predecessor, George Ryan, currently is serving a sentence of 6 1/2 years, also for corruption.
Blagojevich, in a last plea for mercy, tried something he never had before: an apology. After years of insisting he was innocent, he told the judge he’d made “terrible mistakes” and acknowledged that he broke the law.
“I’m here convicted of crimes … ,” Blagojevich said, “and I am accepting of it, I acknowledge it and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it.”
But Zagel gave him little leeway, telling him that he gave him credit for taking responsibility but that his apology didn’t mitigate his crimes.
“Whatever good things you did for people as governor, and you did some, I am more concerned with the occasions when you wanted to use your powers … to do things that were only good for yourself,” he said.
Zagel said he did not believe Blagojevich’s contention, as his lawyers wrote in briefings, that his comments about the corruption schemes were simply “musings.” But Zagel said the jury concluded and he agreed that Blagojevich was engaged in actual schemes, and the undeniable leader of those schemes.
“The governor was not marched along this criminal path by his staff,” Zagel said. “He marched them.”
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 15 to 20 years, which Blagojevich’s attorneys said was too harsh. The defense also presented heartfelt appeals from Blagojevich’s family, including letters from his wife and one of his two daughters that pleaded for mercy.
But the judge made it clear early in the hearing that he believed that Blagojevich had lied on the witness stand when he tried to explain his scheming for the Senate seat, and he did not believe defense suggestions that the former governor was duped by his advisers.
The 54-year-old was ordered to begin serving his sentence on Feb. 16. In white-collar cases, convicted felons are usually given at least a few weeks to report to prison while federal authorities select a suitable facility. Blagojevich is expected to appeal his conviction, but it is unlikely to affect when he reports to prison.
Most of the prisons where Blagojevich could end up are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Ryan is serving his own sentence. In prison, he’ll 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.
According to federal rules, felons must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence a judge imposes — meaning Blagojevich wouldn’t be eligible for early release until he serves nearly 12 years.
Going into the sentencing, many legal experts said the governor — who became a national punch line while doing several reality TV appearances while his legal case unfolded — was likely to get around 10 years. A former Blagojevich fundraiser, Tony Rezko, recently was sentenced to 10 1/2 years, minus time served.
Prosecutors have said Blagojevich misused the power of his office “from the very moment he became governor.” He was initially elected in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up Illinois politics in the midst of federal investigations that led to the prosecution and conviction of Ryan.
Defense attorneys have said Blagojevich has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, and proposed a term of just a few years.
Blagojevich’s sentencing came just days before his 55th birthday on Saturday, and nearly three years to the day of his arrest at dawn on Dec. 9, 2008, when the startled governor asked one federal agent, “Is this a joke?” In a state where corruption has been commonplace, images of Blagojevich being led away in handcuffs still came as a shock.
It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery and attempted extortion.
FBI wiretap evidence proved decisive. In the most notorious recording, Blagojevich is heard crowing that his chance to name someone to Obama’s seat was “f—-ing golden” and he wouldn’t let it go “for f—-ing nothing.”
Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time. Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: “No. I don’t let myself go there.”
In the same interview, Blagojevich also explained that the family dog Skittles was bought after his arrest in to help his school-age daughters, Amy and Annie, cope with the stress of his legal troubles. He said he joked with them that, “If the worst happens (and I go to prison), you can get another dog and call him ‘Daddy.”’