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.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel handed down 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 most of all 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."
Before Blagojevich spoke, prosecutors opened a preemptive strike on the former governor’s anticipated plea for mercy in sentencing.
Assistant U.S. Atty. 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 to 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.”