Ten years ago, Rod Blagojevich awoke to the FBI at his door
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For a man who craved the spotlight — particularly the national one — it was a perfect photo op.
Chanting “si, se puede!” — yes, we can — then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich joined 200 or so laid-off workers inside their recently shuttered factory on Goose Island. And he vowed the state would stop doing business with Bank of America until it used some of its federal bailout money to help the workers.
Even a reporter’s question about an ongoing federal investigation of the governor wasn’t going to spoil his moment.
“I think there’s nothing but sunshine hanging over me,” a grinning Blagojevich replied that morning of Dec. 8, 2008.
The next day brought rain and a swarm of FBI agents with an arrest warrant to the governor’s Ravenswood Manor home.
“The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave,” then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said later that day in talking to reporters about the 76-page criminal complaint against Blagojevich — a “political corruption crime spree,” he called it.
That included the infamous words the governor was secretly recorded saying.
“I’ve got this thing, and it’s [expletive] golden,” Blagojevich said, referring to the vacant U.S. Senate seat he was accused of shopping around to the highest bidder.
Ten years later, what still stands out isn’t that an Illinois governor was arrested or convicted. After all, four of the state’s last eight governors have gone to prison for corruption. It’s the way Blagojevich committed his crimes.
“It was right out there, naked, the way some politicians speak in the most private circumstances,” said Don Rose, a longtime political consultant in Chicago.
The governor’s arrest
Blagojevich’s arrest came early. At about 6 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2008, the phone rang at his home. The governor was still asleep. When he eventually got on the line, he asked Robert Grant, head of Chicago’s FBI office at the time, “Is this a joke?”
It wasn’t, Grant assured Blagojevich. Outside his door, the FBI boss said, were two agents. He urged the governor to open the door so things could be done “quietly.” Blagojevich’s wife Patti was awake. Their two young daughters were still sleeping.
A short time later, wearing a jogging suit, the state’s chief executive was led away in handcuffs.
At 6:21 a.m. that same day, federal agents arrived at the apartment where the governor’s brother, Robert Blagojevich, was staying on the North Side. Robert Blagojevich, who lives in Tennessee, had come to Chicago to help raise campaign money.
“I was in bed,” he recalls. “Both doorbells just would not stop ringing. I went downstairs, and here are these two guys in trenchcoats flashing badges. They wanted me to go down and open up the campaign office … . I said, ‘What if I don’t do that ?’ ‘Well, we’ll tear the door down.’ ”
Later that morning, on the 16th floor of the Thompson Center, the governor’s stunned senior staff huddled over Capitol Fax, the daily political newsletter, and read the indictment.
“The phones were ringing off the hook. … People were threatening to resign and then would have a change of heart,” said a Blagojevich staffer from that time, who spoke on the condition of not being named.
Behind them, tight-lipped federal agents were boxing up documents, removing hard drives, locking office doors — including that of the governor’s chief of staff, John Harris, who was indicted with his boss and would later plead guilty to a single charge of conspiring to commit solicitation.
With the lawyers doing all the talking, the staffers did what anyone would do under the circumstances — they went out for drinks.
But there was no escaping the image of their boss, whose face kept appearing on the big-screen TVs at the North Side bar where they went.
“Our table asked the bartender if they could please turn the channel because we worked for [Blagojevich], and the bartender bought us a round of shots,” the staffer said.
Impeachment, conviction, prison
Within 24 hours of the governor’s arrest, state legislators — who weren’t in session at the time — began talking about a possible impeachment but with no glee, even for his opponents.
Current Republican House Leader Jim Durkin, who was then the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said he and others in his party felt shame, not relief, at the news of Blagojevich’s arrest.
“The embarrassment of having your governor of Illinois being handcuffed and walked out of his home and placed in a federal court house at a bond hearing in a matter of hours — there’s no sense of joy or anything positive about it,” Durkin said. “It was a terrible situation.”
In the weeks that followed, the state’s unconventional governor defied conventional wisdom, appearing on “Good Morning America,” “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” “The Celebrity Apprentice,” among many others, proclaiming his innocence.
Blagojevich declared, “The fix is in,” when he predicted he would be impeached and removed from office.
Again and again, he insisted, “I have done nothing wrong.” But he ultimately was found guilty — after two trials — of 18 charges, though five counts later were overturned.
He’s now serving 14 years in a federal prison in Colorado.
The former governor’s famed chestnut coif — he would have a state trooper carry a hairbrush for him — is now all gray.
In an interview last year, Blagojevich, whose salary as governor was about $177,000, said he now makes $8 an hour. And he no longer follows politics.
Hopes for clemency from Trump
Having exhausted his legal appeals, he and his family now hope he still might be freed by the man who once fired Blagojevich from “Celebrity Apprentice,” President Donald Trump.
In May, Trump told reporters, “I am seriously thinking about — not pardoning — but I am seriously thinking of a curtailment of Blagojevich because what he did does not justify 18 years in a jail,” misstating Blagojevich’s sentence.
Patti Blagojevich has been making public appeals, most notably on Fox News, urging the president to grant clemency to her husband.
His brother also holds out that hope, saying in an interview, “He’s served way too much time already and deserves a break.”