CHICAGO – The day of Rod Blagojevich’s sentencing in late 2011, I was a federal courts reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. I was also extremely pregnant, days from my due date.
A gracious deputy marshal gave me a primo seat in the expansive ceremonial courtroom, right behind Patti Blagojevich, the former governor’s wife. The judge, having shot down one defense argument after another that would have limited Blagojevich’s sentencing range, called for a recess.
That’s when Illinois’ former first lady turned to me: “I hope your water breaks today.” Other reporters were horrified. Was she lashing out at the press?
No, it was a moment of gallows humor; she could feel the devastation that was coming. She was right. U.S. District Judge James Zagel handed down a 14-year sentence to Blagojevich. Prosecutors had calculated that under federal guidelines, Blagojevich’s crimes technically qualified for 30 years to life in prison, but they asked for 15 to 20 years.
Among Blagojevich’s crimes: lying to the FBI, trying to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat and holding up money to a children’s hospital and a racetrack in exchange for campaign contributions.
Zagel, as it happens, was the same judge who in 2009 had sentenced mob informant Nick Calabrese to 12 years in prison. Calabrese helped take down the Chicago mob. He also killed 14 people.
I’ve written hundreds of stories, blog posts, magazine articles and, finally, a book on Blagojevich’s case. There was one sentiment I heard over and over again, which went something like, “I know Blagojevich was guilty as hell but 14 years is insane.”
That’s why President Donald Trump likely risks little political blowback by commuting the sentence of his onetime Apprentice contestant, even in the state that Blagojevich disgraced.
There are hardliners who firmly believe prison is where Blagojevich still belongs. But as blockbuster of a case that Blagojevich’s became, and as much as he gave Illinois a black eye at a time when the country was celebrating the historic election of Barack Obama, even some of the most ardent Blagojevich critics would stop and ask, “But 14 years?”
The prosecution long battled public perception of the charges against Blagojevich as too much — despite a stockpile of secret recordings, in which Blagojevich famously said of the Senate seat Obama vacated, “I’ve got this thing and it’s f—ing golden.” Questions always swirled around the criminal case: Wasn’t this just a ham-handed governor, emasculated and rejected by the political establishment, a politically isolated boor, who was talking big on the phone?
Yes, attempting but failing to commit a crime is still a crime. But it’s another thing to convince an average person it’s illegal, and punishable, especially in city where standing on someone’s neck for a payoff is a way of life.
This undercurrent of government overreach long bubbled beneath the surface of the Blagojevich case, even though this was at a much different era than the one we’re in today. Then, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (who happens to be the personal attorney to his longtime friend James Comey and the special prosecutor in the case against I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, whom Trump pardoned) had ascended into an almost God-like figure; at long last, an incorruptible force who had spawned a golden era of public corruption cases.
But even Fitzgerald was second-guessed when, in 2008 — the day the sitting governor was arrested in his jogging suit — Fitzgerald declared “the conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.” The defense accused him of breaking Justice Department ethics guidelines forbidding extrajudicial comments and possibly tainting a jury pool.
The Blagojevich case provided additional ammunition to critics of law enforcement screaming about government overreach. The most severe of examples was of Blagojevich’s longtime friend, Chris Kelly. Prosecutors, attempting to turn Kelly into a government witness, brought three separate indictments against him. After prosecutors filed a motion to revoke his bond, Kelly, who battled depression, took his own life. In his dying breath he told his girlfriend: “Tell them they won.”
It was against this backdrop that prosecutors brought their case. And the public reservations played out in court.
Despite what appeared to be overwhelming evidence, the first time prosecutors brought Blagojevich to trial, the jury was unable to reach a consensus, forcing the judge to declare a mistrial on 23 of 24 counts.
The jury was hung on all of the charges against Blagojevich’s brother, Robert. He railed against the government for indicting the businessman who briefly served as his brother’s campaign finance chair. Prosecutors ended up dropping charges against Robert Blagojevich.
It was the second trial attempt, with a much leaner case, when prosecutors convinced jurors to decisively convict.
Even then, some of the jurors afterward expressed regret; they liked Blagojevich, but they had to follow the letter of the law.
This all isn’t to say Illinois loved Blagojevich. Far from it. And the feeling was mutual, as one recorded phone call illustrated, “I f—-ing busted my ass… I gave your f—ing baby health care… What do I get for that? Only 13 percent of you think I’m doing a good job, so f— all of you.”
The conventional wisdom among defense lawyers in the courthouse at the time of Blagojevich’s sentencing was he would – and should – get more time than our previous convicted governor, George Ryan.
Ryan was sentenced to 6 ½ years for his corruption case, one that grew from a massive bribe-taking scandal in the secretary of state’s office that Ryan previously oversaw. Secretary of state workers, who said they felt pressured to cough up to Ryan’s campaign fund, were handing out driver’s licenses to unqualified drivers for bribes. A commercial truck driver who was among those to corruptly obtain a license, ended up causing a horrific crash that killed six children.
Even with Trump’s commutation, Blagojevich will have served eight years, a longer term than Ryan’s. (And yes, I’ve long gauged Blagojevich’s time in prison by my son’s age.) It will surprise no one here if Blagojevich almost immediately appears on TV, resuming the role of anti-hero that he began before he was sent to a federal institution.
Only now Blago, rejected by the Springfield insiders who left him powerless in the final months of his governorship, has a new political ally, the president of the United States.
The post I Covered Blago’s Trial From Start To Finish. Trump’s Commutation Isn’t Crazy. appeared first on Politico.
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