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Blagojevich, calling himself ‘freed political prisoner,’ praises Trump, vows to reform ‘broken’ criminal justice system

“I saw what they do to families because I saw it happen to my own,” Rod Blagojevich said. 

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, joined by his wife, Patti, gives a speech outside his Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday morning in which he praised President Trump for his kindness and vowed to reform a broken and “racist” criminal justice system.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Eight years in prison has done little to change Illinois’ bombastic former governor, Rod Blagojevich. That much has become clear.

The former boxer emerged triumphantly from his Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday, wife and daughters in tow, and vowed in a defiant, campaign-style speech to help reform a “broken,” “racist” and “corrupt” criminal justice system.

“I’m returning home today, from a long exile, a freed political prisoner,” Blagojevich said.

But Blagojevich took no questions, and he left unclear many details about his plans for a new chapter in his career, and how it might disrupt politics and justice in Illinois.

Blagojevich returned to Chicago late Tuesday, hours after President Donald Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence. Since his arrival, the former Democratic governor has had nothing but praise for the Republican president who hopes to secure his own second term in office this November.

“He didn’t have to do this,” Blagojevich said of Trump. “He’s a Republican president. I was a Democratic governor. Doing this does nothing to help his politics.”

But Blagojevich has also begun to rail against the federal criminal justice system that is now in the midst of a significant public corruption investigation in Chicago — the biggest since the one that put him in a Colorado prison. Several state and city politicians find themselves in federal crosshairs.

Potentially among them is Blagojevich’s onetime nemesis in the legislature, House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Whatever Blagojevich has in mind, there are still restrictions on his newfound freedom. Trump did not eliminate the two years of supervised release Blagojevich was sentenced to serve by U.S. District Judge James Zagel, records show.

That means Blagojevich must still abide by the conditions Zagel laid out for that period of time. Those conditions appear to be standard. Among them: Blagojevich must seek permission from a probation officer or the court to leave the federal district. And if he doesn’t find a job in the first two months, he must perform at least 20 hours of community service a week until he’s employed.

Blagojevich also just happens to be the subject of a disciplinary hearing set for Tuesday by Illinois’ Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. Steven Splitt, a spokesman for the agency, said Blagojevich’s law license has been under an interim suspension since 2011, but the disciplinary process had largely been put on hold while Blagojevich spent years appealing his criminal conviction in the courts.

Now, what might once have been a quiet hearing could turn again into a major media event, much like Blagojevich’s arrival at O’Hare Airport or his speech Wednesday in Ravenswood Manor.

Blagojevich emerged to give that speech about 25 minutes late, in typical Blagojevich fashion. After making his way out of his house, he stopped to sign an oversized cardboard cutout of his grinning face — from a photo taken when his hair was still dyed black — then he shook hands with supporters who greeted him.

As he began to speak, he repeatedly dabbed his chin with a white napkin. He told reporters it had “been a long time since I shaved with a normal razor.” His wife, Patti Blagojevich, said the speech began late because the former governor couldn’t find his socks.

Clutching Patti’s hand, Rod Blagojevich teared up at times up while marveling at how his daughters had grown up.

He spoke about turning to faith behind bars. He said he avoided a razor-wire fence in prison out of fear that guards had “discretion” to use machine guns. And, scarcely missing a political beat, he railed against the “unfair” criminal justice system that put him in prison. He said he’d vote for Trump — the “problem solver” — and urged his “fellow underdogs” not to give up.

“Don’t give up. Don’t give up,” Blagojevich said. “Think of the people you love. That’s where you’ll find your courage … even when your calamity comes on like a whirlwind. Keep fighting.”

Blagojevich called the case against him “persecution masquerading as prosecution.” He also thanked the Rev. Jesse Jackson and ex-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. — who once went to prison amid his own corruption case — as well as former Ald. Richard Mell, the father-in-law with whom Blagojevich has had a notoriously antagonistic relationship.

When he was done, Patti Blagojevich tugged her husband by the hand back into their home — away from outstretched hands, and before he could take questions from reporters.

Blagojevich did take questions in two TV interviews that aired Wednesday evening. In one, he told Larry Yellen on Fox32 that “you can’t always rely on the courts” — and pointed to the 1857 case of enslaved Dred Scott, who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom, as proof.

“I know what the Chief Justice of the United States ruled in the Dred Scott case, where he decided … that an African American person is not a human being for purposes of the law, that he was property and he sent Dred Scott back to a slave state,” Blagojevich said. “So, they don’t always get it right.”

WATCH LIVE: Rod Blagojevich, family, speak at ex-governor’s North Side home on prison release https://abc7.ws/32aHKtx

Posted by ABC 7 Chicago on Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Click here to watch on YouTube.