A federal judge today upheld Rod Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence for public corruption, rejecting tearful appeals from the former Illinois governor’s wife and daughters during a resentencing hearing in Chicago. Blagojevich, his signature thick mane of black hair now turned white, appeared via closed-circuit television from the Colorado prison where he has been for four years.
“I think I’m a very different person and I think I’ve become someone who has learned a lot from the mistakes I have made,” he told Judge James Zagel.
Last year, a federal appeals court threw out some of the most sensational convictions, ruling that the Democrat did not break the law when he tried to get a Cabinet appointment in exchange for appointing White House adviser Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama’s election as president. Prosecutors decided not to retry the former governor on those charges, and that led his legal team to seek a sentence reduction.
Blagojevich’s crimes included attempted extortion from campaign contributors, corrupt solicitation of funds, wire fraud and lying to federal investigators.
Prosecutors had opposed the request, stating that Blagojevich, who appeared on “Celebrity Apprentice” while awaiting trial in the case, has failed to accept responsibility or show remorse.
In an extensive letter-writing campaign, his fellow inmates had described “The Gov” to the judge as “humble” and a “good man” who is knowledgeable and a great teacher. He spends his days teaching inmates about Washington, Roosevelt, Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and working in the law library. He reads the Bible every night, they said.
“I am a drug addict and he treats me like an equal,” one inmate wrote. Another writes about the negativity and hopelessness in prison and said he enjoys his time seeing Blagojevich in the law library to get “my daily dose of encouragement.”
This picture of Blagojevich painted by the letter writers stands in sharp contrast to the former governor at both trials who seemed to work the crowd as though he were campaigning, signing autographs, hugging supporters and boldly declaring his innocence. Dressed to the nines, chatty, eager to schmooze, he was quick to recite a famous quote, shake a hand and apologize for his language heard on the tapes.
His wife, Patti, would always be at his side, yanking him by the hand as he stopped to take one more photo. He was upbeat and cracked jokes during court breaks. To third-graders touring the Federal Building, he once said, “If I knew you, maybe I would have named you to the Senate seat.”
Blagojevich’s attorney, Leonard Goodman, said that in all his years practicing law, he has never seen a letter-writing response like the one Blagojevich has received. He was hopeful that the judge would view the case differently, he said, because the conviction involving the Senate seat has been overturned and what is left is purely about campaign fundraising. And raising funds, Goodman said, “is part of the job as governor.”
“The case has changed,” Goodman said. “The problem for the government is there really isn’t a comparable case they can point to. Blagojevich is the only one in modern history in prison for breaking the rules of political fundraising.”
As the proceedings were set to begin Tuesday, Patti Blagojevich entered the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building in tears, clutching the hands of her daughters, 20-year-old Amy and 13-year-old Annie. As everyone got seated in the courtroom, for about 20 minutes, the feed of Rod Blagojevich was on screens throughout the room. Blagojevich, wearing a short-sleeved shirt (not a jumpsuit), shifted uncomfortably in his chair, folding and unfolding his hands and occasionally pointing to someone in the room.
Goodman stated the defense’s case, emphasizing that the crimes were an attempt to raise funds for political goals, not to enrich Blagojevich or his family. He ended his argument with, “We believe he’s ready to come home, your honor.”
Goodman said that while what Blagojevich did may be illegal, it can’t compare to a politician enriching himself personally. And while he recognized that Zagel viewed Blagojevich as disrespectful, he said the former governor was a different man.
“His arrogance and anger are no longer present,” Goodman said.
Annie Blagojevich told the judge she has talked to her father every night since his incarceration. Sometimes he would answer homework questions and they talked about their love of music. She spoke of her piano recitals and how when he left, she played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and now she was playing Beethoven.
“I don’t want to grow up because I want to wait for him to grow up,” Annie Blagojevich said.
Amy Blagojevich spoke about her father never getting to meet the most important people in her life. She has found the visits in Colorado draining and said she felt uncomfortable crying in front of guards. As she spoke of her unconditional love for her father, Rod Blagojevich looked sad and stricken.
Rod Blagojevich said: “I accept the responsibility for the words I speak. My words and my actions are what led me here. I regret those mistakes.”
One of the realizations he has come to, he said, is that “I had a lot of ambition before — a lot of that is overrated.”
The prosecution held to their claim that Blagojevich has not taken responsibility, even after four-and-a-half years, and that he has not truly accepted the crimes and harm he has caused.
“He repeatedly expressed regret for ‘mistakes’ but not ‘criminal conduct,’ said Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici. “It is important the sentence given today deters future corruption,” she said as she asked the court to impose the ordinal sentence.
Zagel spoke of “significant damage” that was the result of the governor’s actions on the people of Illinois and the “erosion of trust” the state of Illinois has endured “time and time again.”
Zagel said Blagojevich gained personally and politically, and much of his own recorded conversations show that.
“I do not believe it was only for political gain,” he said.
Zagel said that although the letters show a model prisoner, his fellow inmates only know him on the inside of a prison and “not as a powerful office-holder.”
The judge did express sympathy for Blagojevich’s children and said he does not doubt he is a loving father, but reiterated what he said four years ago: “The fault lies in the governor.” He reminded Blagojevich that he ran on a platform of “restoring integrity” and said “his good behavior does not erase the harm he inflicted on the people of Illinois.”
As Zagel explained that he hopes the sentence is a deterrent, the Blagojevich daughters began to sob. Blagojevich sat stone-faced.
As the proceedings adjourned, Patti, the girls, Patti’s sister Deb Mell and her brother Robert Mell supported each other in a group hug as the daughters sobbed.
Patti Blagojevich later spoke to reporters. Standing with her tearful daughters, she said she found the sentence “unusually cruel and heartless” and said she was profoundly disappointed.