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Officer Down

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: Judge gives Blagojevich 14 years: 'When governor goes bad, fabric of Illinois is torn'

--Couldn't happen to a nicer guy.--

Story at Chicago Tribune

By Bob Secter, Jeff Coen and Annie Sweeney
Tribune reporters
1:15 PM CST, December 7, 2011

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined $20,000 for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald famously referred to as a criminal corruption crime spree at the time of Blagojevich’s arrest three years ago.

Patti Blagojevich buried her head in her husband's shoulder and the two embraced. He pulled back to brush tears off her cheek and then rubbed her shoulders.

Blagojevich will have to serve just under 12 years under federal rules that say defendants must complete 85 percent of their sentence. Blagojevich doesn’t have to report to federal prison until Feb. 16.

The sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge James Zagel is more than double the prison term given in 2006 to former Gov. George Ryan, who is serving a 6 ½-year sentence in a federal prison in Terre Haute.

Before pronouncing sentence, Zagel told Blagojevich he had abused the public trust. "When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired," Zagel said.

The judge said Blagojevich was clearly responsible for his crimes, not his underlings as the former governor had argued. "He marched them and ruined a few of their careers and more than that in the process," the judge said.

While Zagel said he was sympathetic to how the sentence would affect Blagojevich's daughters, he asked, "Why did devotion as a father not deter him? ... Now it is too late."

Zagel announced 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. ”

In a more than half-hour monologue, nearly twice as long as Blagojevich spoke in asking for mercy, Zagel told Blagojevich he did believe he had finally come to accept responsibility for his actions but that did not significantly lessen the damage he had done to his family and to the public trust in government.

“His abuse of the office of governor is more damaging than any other office in the United States except president,” Zagel said.

Zagel said he did not believe Blagojevich’s claim that he had thought what he was doing was legal, even if it ultimately turned out not to be.

On government wiretaps, Zagel noted, Blagojevich talked endlessly about a myriad of options for picking a U. S. senator that could benefit the governor himself but never asked aides a simple question of whether his plans were legal.

“The lawyer defendant understood in this case that he did not want to ask what was legal,” Zagel said.

Zagel said he believed that Blagojevich as governor did do good things for people, in particular children, but that did not separate him from many politicians. The judge said he also believed Blagojevich to be a good and devoted father. “It’s not exceptional,” Zagel said. “I see case after case where good fathers are also bad citizens and end up in jail.”

The bigger question, in the judge’s view, was why Blagojevich did not shield his children from the consequences of his reckless conduct by not doing it.

In a particularly stinging comment, aimed as much at voters who sent Blagojevich to office twice as to the former governor himself, Zagel pointed out that over the course of two trials he had made it a point to refer to Blagojevich by the honorific of governor.

“It reminds voters of the maxim, the American people usually get precisely the government that they deserve,” Zagel said.

The sentence leveled by Zagel was more than twice that handed down to Blagojevich’s corrupt predecessor, George Ryan, but the judge said that the crimes of Blagojevich could not be measured in money or property stolen.

“The harm is the erosion of public trust in government,” Zagel said. “If a state senator takes a bribe, it’s one person out of 59…You are not to be compared with those of lesser positions in government. You as a governor are seen to control all of government…The fabric of Illinois is torn, disfigured and not easily repaired. You did that damage.”

The Blagojevich who stood before the judge 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.

Today, 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."

The judge called for a 20-minute break before he is expected to return to the courtroom to impose sentence.

Before Blagojevich spoke, prosecutors opened a pre-emptive strike on the former governor’s anticipated plea for mercy in sentencing.

Assistant U.S. Attorney 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 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.”