CHICAGO — A federal jury convicted former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (D) on 17 of 20 counts Monday, finding that he brazenly abused the powers of his office in a series of attempted shakedowns captured on undercover government recordings.
Blagojevich showed no reaction as the jury announced its decisions. After the verdicts were read, he sat back in his chair with his lips pursed, looked toward his wife, Patti, and whispered, “I love you.”
As the first guilty verdict was read, Patti Blagojevich slumped into the arms of her brother, who stroked her head. She kept shaking her head no as the jurors left the courtroom, and once the judge was gone, the former governor grabbed his wife’s right hand and hugged and kissed her.
Blagojevich spoke briefly as he and his wife left the federal courthouse. “Patti and I are obviously very disappointed,” he said at a bank of microphones. “I, frankly, am stunned.
“There’s not much left to say, other than we want to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and try to sort things out,” he added. The two then walked to a waiting car as some in the crowd booed.
Blagojevich faces up to 300 years in prison, theoretically, although sentencing guidelines are sure to significantly reduce his time behind bars. He is the fourth former Illinois governor to be convicted of felonies since 1973.
Blagojevich was convicted on all 11 counts involving an attempt to cash in on his power to name a successor in the U.S. Senate for newly elected President Obama.
Blagojevich was also convicted of several other shakedowns involving misuse of his official powers to raise campaign cash.
This marks the second time in less than a year that Blagojevich, 54, has been convicted of a crime. The jury at his first trial last summer found him guilty of lying to the FBI, though that panel deadlocked on the other counts. That impasse set the stage for a retrial.
This time the verdict was unequivocal, with the jury of 11 women and one man finding Blagojevich guilty on 17 criminal counts, including charges of wire fraud, attempted extortion, bribery and conspiracy.
The result represents a redemption of sorts for the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who on the day of Blagojevich’s arrest in 2008 accused the then-governor of spearheading a “political corruption crime spree.”
Responding to complaints from jurors in the first trial that the government’s presentation was confusing, prosecutors streamlined the case by jettisoning complicated racketeering charges. Charges were also dropped against Blagojevich’s brother, Robert, his chief fundraiser, who had been tried beside the former governor last summer.
In repackaging the case, prosecutors dispensed with evidence aimed at showing that Blagojevich had conspired with top fundraisers from the earliest days of his administration to corrupt state boards and pocket ill-gotten proceeds.
Blagojevich testified that prosecutors had twisted his words, recorded on government wiretaps, and insisted that he was guilty of nothing more than thinking out loud. What’s more, Blagojevich’s attorneys emphasized, none of the illegal plots he was accused of hatching came to fruition.
From the beginning, the case against Blagojevich was fraught with political overtones, though even before his arrest the former governor’s once-promising career had been in a steep decline amid scandal, tanking poll ratings and public feuds with Democratic Party leaders.
Given the nature of the charges, critics of Obama eyed the case for any hint that the president or his close associates had abetted Blagojevich’s attempts at wheeling and dealing. But wiretaps and testimony showed an incoming White House wary of Blagojevich and largely unresponsive to his attempts to land a Cabinet post, ambassadorship or other lucrative role as the price for naming a senator to Obama’s liking.
In the end, jurors agreed with prosecutors that Blagojevich had tried to sell the Senate seat in a variety of ways, including an attempt to steer it to Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D) in exchange for $1.5 million in campaign cash promised by Jackson supporters.
Even before the verdict, Blagojevich’s defense team laid the groundwork for a likely appeal. It filed several motions for mistrial that accused U.S. District Judge James Zagel of pro-prosecution bias, but he denied them.