“He did not do a lot of his pardons as he should have,” Ford told The Washington Post on Wednesday as he reflected on Blagojevich’s tenure, prison sentence and commutation. “Nevertheless, in this instance, two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Ford’s reaction captures the complexity of the response to the Blagojevich commutation. Even when Trump grants clemency to polarizing figures like his ally, former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, reactions are neatly split along a partisan line; with Blagojevich, he’s alienated members of his own party but has been embraced by Trump supporters who see him as an extension of the president. His commutation has angered anti-corruption advocates but drawn approval from those seeking a less-punitive justice system — including criminal-justice advocates who rebuked his actions as governor.
“I think that we need more mercy with the criminal-justice system and that it gets dispensed more evenly,” Steven Drizin, co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions in Chicago, told The Post. Nonetheless, he noted that the harm Blagojevich caused during his time as governor, particularly his delays in taking clemency action, earned him the nickname “Backlog Blagojevich.”
According to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board, Blagojevich took action on fewer than 25 percent of clemency petitions filed while he was governor, NBC Chicago reported in 2016 — 13 years after the backlog began. A group of Illinoisans with felony records went as far as suing Blagojevich over his inaction on clemency requests.
Drizin represented several people who were affected by the backlog, which eventually took the two successive gubernatorial administrations to clear.
“There were ‘actual innocence’ petitions that some of our clients needed to get compensation for all the years they wrongfully spent in prison, and even those were stalled,” Drizin said. It got so bad that state lawmakers, still during Blagojevich’s tenure, created a workaround process for granting the ultimate forms of expungement because the governor’s office was so ineffective.
“It takes a certain amount of courage to grant commutations, especially in cases involving serious crimes. And Governor Blagojevich didn’t have that kind of courage,” he said.
By the time Blagojevich was finally forced from office in 2009, he was broadly disliked by both parties, and time has done little to soften the feelings of many Illinois lawmakers. Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) criticized the commutation of his sentence as “an inexplicable way to reward [Trump’s] friends and condone corruption,” while Illinois House GOP leader Jim Durkin said Blagojevich as governor was “rogue on steroids” and suggested Trump’s decision was evidence he didn’t care about appealing to Illinois voters in November.
Ford said Blagojevich’s embrace of Trump is easy to understand considering he left office spurned by his own party.
“He said he’s a ‘Trumpocrat’ now,” Ford said, quoting Blagojevich. “He feels like the Democrats put him in jail.”
Ford was among the 114 state representatives who voted in favor of impeaching Blagojevich in 2009, but he said there was no reason taxpayers should be paying for him to remain in prison after eight years.
“I think he should be home with his family and with his daughters and his wife,” Ford said.
Blagojevich and his wife, Patti, have long decried his 14-year sentence as excessive and unfair; they also maintain Blagojevich did nothing wrong. A jury convicted him in 2009 of crimes including his attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama to the highest bidder and his attempted shakedown of a children’s hospital executive.
The sentence was long and yet not extraordinary for federal prison sentences. Looking at the length alone “ignores the deeper motivations of the chief executive,” Northwestern University law professor Juliet Sorensen told The Post. Sorensen, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago who focused on fraud and public corruption, said Blagojevich’s commutation lacks the signatures of neutral clemency decisions — situations in which a president acts to correct a dubious conviction or to serve a broader policy goal, like commuting low-level drug offenses.
“What seems to be done is a sort of relationship-based personal choice,” Sorensen said.
Trump and Blagojevich first met in 2010 on the set of “Celebrity Apprentice” when Blagojevich was a contestant. Trump fired the ex-governor but praised his tenacity in fighting his critics. Outside his home Wednesday, Blagojevich adopted a posture Trump has taken before, casting himself as an underdog fighting a corrupt criminal justice system and unfair federal prosecutors.
Blagojevich praised Trump’s “act of kindness” and claimed the president and his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner have done more for criminal-justice reform than anyone else.
“They both feel they were wronged by the criminal-justice system,” Ford said of Trump and Blagojevich. The president has railed against the Justice Department ever since the Mueller investigation into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election. “They can sing from the same hymn [sheet] that the criminal justice system was unfair.”
Ford suggested that if Blagojevich truly wants to redeem himself, he should act as a nonpartisan citizen who advocates for criminal-justice reform.
“He should take a page from Gov. [George] Ryan,” Ford said, invoking Blagojevich’s predecessor. Ryan served prison time and returned home — and has largely avoided the limelight.