CHICAGO – A federal judge refused Tuesday to lighten Rod Blagojevich’s original 14-year prison sentence for corruption, rejecting pleas for lenience by the now white-haired former Illinois governor who attended the resentencing hearing by video from a Colorado prison a thousand miles away.
Blagojevich, 59, was eligible for resentencing after an appeals court last year threw out several convictions related to his alleged attempt to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.
A somber, contrite Blagojevich spoke for 20 minutes in a sometimes apologetic, sometimes rambling statement before U.S. District Judge James Zagel announced the sentence, telling the court he understood he made mistakes.
“I wish I could turn back the clock and make different choices,” said Blagojevich, who didn’t use notes. “These have been hard years.”
Zagel said that even though the appeals court threw out five of the 18 counts against the former governor, the remaining ones still justified the original sentence. The appeals court said in its ruling last year that Blagojevich wasn’t necessarily entitled to a lower sentence, adding that the 14-year term fell below what federal guidelines recommended.
As the judge announced his decision, Blagojevich could be seen on screen bowing his head. In the courtroom, his two daughters sobbed, the younger one placing her head on her mother, Patti’s, shoulder.
The one-time contestant on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show wanted Zagel to sharply reduce his sentence to just five years, which would have meant him going free within months. Instead, with the 14-year term reaffirmed, his projected release date remains 2024, which includes two years’ credit for good behavior.
Zagel said he went through more than 100 letters from fellow prisoners. Many portrayed Blagojevich – known as brash in his days as governor – as humble and self-effacing, as well as an insightful life coach and lecturer on everything from the Civil War to Richard Nixon.
But Zagel said they had not seen the same evidence jurors saw of Blagojevich’s corruption.
Defense lawyers said Blagojevich has been a model prisoner, noting in one filing how the Elvis Presley fan formed a prison band called “The Jailhouse Rockers.” The group, which had a 21-song play list, dissolved after another inmate, the lead guitarist, was released.
Zagel told Tuesday’s hearing that Blagojevich’s exemplary behavior behind bars wasn’t relevant to deciding on an appropriate punishment.
The resentencing, where attendees could see Blagojevich on several screens around the courtroom, marked his first appearance in a public forum since entering prison.
Blagojevich was famously fastidious about his dark hair as governor, but it went all white because hair dyes are banned in prison. He sat in a chair during the two-hour hearing in blue-green prison garb with a nametag with his Inmate No. 40892-424 on his shirt. Other than his hair, the avid runner who has continued to exercise behind bars looked fit.
Subdued for much of the hearing, Blagojevich wiped tears from his eyes when his daughters, 13-year-old Annie and 20-year-old Amy, made statements in court. Annie, an aspiring pianist, described how much her father had missed of her childhood, saying she could only play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” when she last saw him at home, but has since begun playing Beethoven.
“I don’t want to grow up because I want to wait for him to come home,” she said.
Prosecutors urged Zagel to impose the same 14-year prison term – one of the stiffest sentences for corruption in Illinois history, arguing that would send a message to would-be corrupt politicians in a state where four of the last 10 governors have ended up in prison.
Speaking at the hearing Tuesday, assistant U.S. attorney Debra Bonamici countered the notion that Blagojevich is a fundamentally changed man, noting how he has expressed remorse for having made “mistakes” rather than for “committing crimes.”
“He really is the same man who appeared before you in 2011,” she said.
Bonamici conceded that seeing Blagojevich’s kids in court was “heartbreaking,“ but added, “we can’t forget the people of Illinois. They were the victims of his crimes.”
Blagojevich’s wife told reporters outside court that the resentencing was “cruel and heartless and unfair.”
“I’m dumbfounded and flabbergasted at the inability for the judge to see that things are different than they were 4 1/2 years ago and his unwillingness to bestow even the smallest amount of leniency or mercy or kindness,” Patti Blagojevich said.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year tossed convictions tied to Blagojevich’s bid to win a White House appointment for appointing someone to Obama’s Senate seat. It upheld his convictions on allegations that he tried to swap the Senate appointment for campaign cash, finding that trading one job appointment for another does not break the law.
After the appellate court’s finding, Blagojevich appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to toss his remaining convictions, including for trying to extort a children’s hospital for a campaign contribution and lying to the FBI. But the high court refused to hear the longshot appeal.
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