The federal judge who handed Rod Blagojevich a 14-year prison term cited the corrupt former governor’s reputation for erratic behavior Wednesday in sentencing a former top Blagojevich aide to only 10 days behind bars.
Former chief of staff John Harris’ role in the bartering over President Obama’s old Senate seat was “so serious and so crucial” that it warranted some prison time, said U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel. But Zagel also noted that Harris’s boss exhibited “elements on some level of mental instability.”
“It was difficult for me to understand, on many occasions, what the governor was doing,” Zagel told Harris.
Blagojevich and Harris were arrested on the same day in December 2008, but rather than fighting the charges, Harris almost immediately agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and testified against Blagojevich at both his trials, pleading guilty to a lesser charge in hopes of a more lenient sentence. In addition to the unusually brief prison term, Zagel sentenced Harris, 50, to two years of supervised release and a $1,000 fine.
Harris told the judge that he wanted to apologize for his actions to the people of the state, the court, the government and his family. Harris, who is of Greek descent, recounted the long “odyssey” that began with his arrest at home, saying he soon realized he should have stopped helping Blagojevich when it became clear to him that his boss was looking to benefit himself.
“I should have done more,” Harris told Zagel. “In seeking to maintain his confidence, I lost my way.”
Harris’s lawyer, Terry Ekl, had asked the judge to give no more than probation, but he said Harris was “very pleased” with the sentence.
Before announcing the sentence, the judge said he could not honestly claim he would have reacted to a superior’s directives differently than Harris responded to Blagojevich – with one exception.
“I would have left sooner, much sooner,” said Zagel, who was a state official in the 1970s and 1980s and credited Harris with disobeying some of Blagojevich’s orders.
The judge also cited what he described as an “unusual set of character reference letters” for Harris, many from prominent figures in city and state political circles. Zagel said he knew at least 10 of the letter writers personally.
And federal prosecutors only had words of praise for Harris. “He was clearly doing everything he could from Day 1” to help authorities build their case, Assistant U.S. Atty. Carrie Hamilton told Zagel.
Still, Harris admitted that he broke the law in a scheme to help Blagojevich try to parlay his power over the Senate appointment into a lucrative private-sector job.
Although he will forever be associated with Blagojevich, whose administration he joined in 2005, Harris had far deeper roots with former Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was a campaign coordinator in a North Side ward for Daley’s 1995 re-election bid and was city budget director and a high-ranking Aviation and Police Department official. He was best known at City Hall for supervising the dead-of-night dismantling of Meigs Field in 2003.
At least two former Daley administration officials – longtime mayoral aide Patrick Harney and chief financial officer Dana Levenson – attended Wednesday’s sentencing to show support for Harris.
After his arrest, Harris surrendered his law license and went to work for an electrical contractor.
Blagojevich entered prison in Colorado on March 15.