Former Illinois Gov. Blagojevich gets 14-year sentence

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CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich, Illinois’ 40th governor,
was sentenced to 14 years in prison Wednesday for the attempted sale of a
U.S. Senate seat, illegal shakedowns for campaign cash and lying to
federal agents.

As the sentence was pronounced, Patti Blagojevich buried her head in her husband’s shoulder and the two embraced.

Blagojevich
will have to serve just under 12 years under federal rules that say
defendants must complete 85 percent of their sentence. Blagojevich
doesn’t have to report to federal prison until Feb. 16.

The
sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge James Zagel is more than
double the prison term given in 2006 to former Gov. George Ryan, who is
serving a 6 1/2-year sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute.

Zagel
told Blagojevich that he was responsible for the crimes, not his
underlings as he had argued. “He marched them and ruined a few of their
careers and more than that in the process,” the judge said.

While
Zagel said he was sympathetic to how the sentence would affect
Blagojevich’s daughters, he asked, “Why did devotion as a father not
deter him? … Now it is too late.”

Zagel
announced the sentence after a somber Blagojevich, his voice cracking
with emotion, pleaded for a lighter sentence with a round of apologies
to the judge, to the jurors who convicted him, to the public and to his
family.

“I’m here convicted of crimes. The jury
decided I was guilty. I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it, and I of
course am unbelievably sorry for it,” Blagojevich said.

“I
want to apologize to the people of Illinois, to the court, for the
mistakes I have made … I never set out to break the law. I never set
out to cross lines.”

Blagojevich said he thought he was acting in accord with the law when he did things for which he later was convicted.

“I
was mistaken. The jury convicted me and they convicted me because those
were my actions … I am responsible. I caused it all. I’m not blaming
anybody. I was the governor, and I should have known better. And I am
just so incredibly sorry.”

Blagojevich expressed
remorse for challenging the integrity of prosecutors. Noting that Zagel
said Tuesday that Blagojevich appeared to treat the process like a
boxing match or a duel, Blagojevich agreed, even noting that he
romanticized it like the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

Blagojevich said he acted in a childish and immature manner, self centered and self absorbed.

“I am accustomed to fighting back and I did and it was inappropriate,” he said.

He
apologized to his brother, Robert, his former campaign chief, for
dragging him into the criminal case, and he apologized to his wife and
daughters for destroying their family.

“My life is
in ruins,” he said. “I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity
and actions … I’m not blaming anybody. I have accepted responsibility
for it. “

Blagojevich
spoke for less than 19 minutes, and it was a very different man than
the one who rambled for nearly an hour at his Senate impeachment trial
two years ago lecturing lawmakers on why they were flatly wrong to try
and boot him from office.

Wednesday, the former
governor simply fell on his sword, admitting he had let everybody around
him down, in particular his wife and children.

“My
children have had to suffer,” he said. “I’ve ruined their innocence. …
It’s not like their name is Smith. They can’t hide. I have nobody to
blame but myself.”

“I accept the people’s verdict,
judge,” he continued. “They found me guilty. All I can say is I never
wanted to hurt anyone, most of all Children’s Memorial Hospital. I am
before you now as a person convicted of crimes. … I would hope you could
find some mercy.”

The judge called for a 20-minute break before he is expected to return to the courtroom to impose sentence.

Before
Blagojevich spoke, prosecutors opened a pre-emptive strike on the
former governor’s anticipated plea for mercy in sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar described the former governor as a habitual schemer who can never be believed.

“He is incredibly manipulative and he knows how to be,” Schar told Zagel. “To his credit, he’s clever about it.”

In
arguing for a lengthy sentence for Blagojevich, Schar pointed out how
Blagojevich sprinkled his trial testimony last spring with references to
things designed to appeal to individual jurors.

One
juror was a Boston native, so Blagojevich referred to that city.
Another was a librarian, so there was a reference to his love of library
study, and so on and so on.

Schar noted that
Blagojevich’s lawyers appeared to argue on Tuesday that the former
governor’s crimes resulted in very little harm to taxpayers or
institutions. The prosecutor sharply disagreed.

”The
defendant in this case held up funding to every children’s hospital in
the state of Illinois for 30 days,” Schar said. “It was only after his
arrest that he let it go through. … He left vacant a Senate seat during a
time when significant votes were occurring in the U.S. Senate.”

“The
defendant’s criminal activity corrupted the decision-making process of
Illinois. …. His criminal activity has further eroded the public’s
confidence in government and government officials.”

Schar
also bore in on a defense claim that the laws Blagojevich broke were
murky because his shakedowns involved campaign contributions rather than
old-fashioned, pocket-lining bribes.

“The
defendant was a lawyer, he was a former prosecutor. It apparently was
not murky to the defendant when he was on tape … Not murky when after
George Ryan’s conviction he said … government was supposed to exist for
the good of the people and not the other way around,” Schar said.

While
Blagojevich’s lawyers have argued that the former governor should be
cut some slack because he had advocated programs that helped children
and seniors, Schar said Blagojevich’s performance as governor was
irrelevant to the charges for which he was convicted.

What
was far more important was that a strong message be sent to not just
public officials but also the public itself that corruption will not be
tolerated, Schar said.

“The people have had
enough,” the prosecutor said. “They’ve had enough of this defendant.
They’ve had enough of those who are corrupt like him. A message must be
sent. … They should have the highest expectations that their elected
leaders will honor that faith the people put in them.”

___

©2011 the Chicago Tribune

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