To the federal judge who handed down Rod Blagojevich’s devastatingly long prison sentence, the abuse of the governor’s office “is more damaging than the abuse of any other office in the United States except president.”
U.S. District Judge James Zagel has said such corruption “seeps into the fabric” of state government. And “when it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired.”
“You did that damage,” Zagel told Blagojevich on Dec. 7, 2011, just before he sentenced the former governor to 14 years in prison.
Nearly five years later, an appellate court ruling has wiped out the sentence Zagel handed down that day — along with nearly a third of Blagojevich’s convictions. That’s why Zagel is preparing to sentence Illinois’ imprisoned former chief executive all over again Tuesday, in what could be the culmination of Blagojevich’s years-long fight for freedom.
Zagel has all the cover he needs to reinstate Blagojevich’s original sentence, in spite of cries from many corners that it was too harsh. Last year’s appellate ruling found “it is not possible to call 168 months unlawfully high for Blagojevich’s crimes.” Still, many legal experts predict Zagel will be moved to lower the Democrat’s sentence.
Richard Kling, a clinical professor of law at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, is in the “your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine” camp. But he noted Blagojevich’s first sentence was handed down in “the heat of trial,” when headlines were filled with rhetoric from Blagojevich’s lawyers and emotions ran high.
Not only has the rhetoric died down, Zagel will have the benefit of knowing how Blagojevich spent his first four years in prison — and about the time he spent teaching fellow inmates about the Civil War and World War II. That could make the difference Tuesday, according to former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer.
“He’s been doing something positive with his time,” said Cramer, now managing director of Berkeley Research Group.
Preparations for Tuesday’s hearing have also revealed Blagojevich helped form a prison band known as The Jailhouse Rockers with a 21-song playlist including “Bad Moon Rising.”
The former governor will appear Tuesday through a closed-circuit television link from a Colorado prison, and he will ask Zagel for a five-year sentence that could quickly set him free. Prosecutors insist Blagojevich has refused to accept responsibility for his crimes and should be sentenced to 14 years in prison all over again.
The proceedings are likely to draw out characters who once served as regulars during the Blagojevich drama, which began close to a decade ago. Blagojevich’s brother, Robert Blagojevich, is expected to appear at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. At least one of the former governor’s family members is expected to testify during the hearing.
A crush of media will likely fill Zagel’s courtroom. After four years of near-silence by the former governor, reporters will not only want to hear what Blagojevich has to say, but they will join sketch artists in straining their necks for a glimpse of Blagojevich’s thick mop of hair — which has reportedly turned from black to white in prison.
Turnover has also largely remade the U.S. Attorney’s office since Blagojevich’s first sentencing. But in the view of Assistant U.S. Attorney Debra Riggs Bonamici, little has changed since Blagojevich last sought Zagel’s mercy.
Even though the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned five of 18 his convictions in July 2015, Bonamici told the judge that Blagojevich “remains convicted of the same three charged shakedowns of which he stood convicted at the original sentencing.”
They include his attempt to sell then-President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, to shake down the CEO of Children’s Memorial Hospital for $25,000 in campaign contributions, and to hold up a bill to benefit the racetrack industry for $100,000 in campaign contributions. A jury also convicted Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.
Nor did the ruling change the sentencing guidelines Zagel will rely upon.
Leonard Goodman, Blagojevich’s appellate attorney, claims the appellate court ruling wiped out “the centerpiece of the government’s case.” That’s because the ruling took issue with jury instructions that may have allowed jurors to convict Blagojevich simply for seeking a position in Obama’s cabinet in exchange for appointing Valerie Jarrett to the Senate.
The court called that “logrolling” and said it’s part of the “usual course of business” in politics.
Therefore, Goodman has argued, Blagojevich now faces sentencing for crimes that “all relate exclusively to his attempts to raise funds for his political campaign. His crimes can no longer be portrayed as selfish or greedy. Instead they are the crimes of an overly zealous politician seeking to advance his political goals.”
Bonamici says that’s simply not true, because Blagojevich remains convicted of five counts alleging he sought to trade the senate seat for millions of dollars in seed money for a nonprofit organization he would lead.
No matter how Tuesday’s hearing goes, Patti Blagojevich has indicated her husband will try to take a new appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the high court has already refused to hear Blagojevich’s case. Cramer doubts it will change its mind a second time around. And that means this could finally be the end of the road for the long legal saga that began with Blagojevich’s early morning arrest at his North Side home on Dec. 9, 2008.
“Whatever number Judge Zagel gives, that’s going to be a final number,” Cramer said.