A district judge ignored pleas for leniency as he sent the former governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, to prison for 14 years for trying to sell a vacant seat to the US Senate.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said he “could not comprehend” the defense position that even if Blagojevich were guilty, the governor’s conduct caused no harm to the state of Illinois.
The judge said a harsh penalty was necessary because Blagojevich had “torn at the fabric” of the state and left it disfigured by trying to secure a high-paying job or campaign funds through his power to appoint someone to Barack Obama’s vacant senate seat.
Blagojevich does not have to report to federal prison until 16 February.
Wednesday was the first time Blagojevich expressed contrition, telling the judge he was “unbelievably sorry,” but stopping short of admitting guilt.
“I’m here convicted of crimes,” he said. “The jury decided I was guilty. I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it, and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it. 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.
“My life is in ruins. I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions … I’m not blaming anybody. I have accepted responsibility for it. “
Zagel said Blagojevich had now taken responsibility for his conduct and said he considered that in calculating his sentence. But ultimately, the apology came too late, Zagel said.
Zagel also disputed the defense theory that Blagojevich was misled by his staff. “The governor was not marched along the criminal path by his staff,” Zagel said. “He marched them and ruined a few of their careers.”
“The defendant’s criminal activity corrupted the decision-making process of Illinois,” said assistant US attorney Reid Schar. “His criminal activity has further eroded the public’s confidence in government and government officials.”
Blagojevich’s sentencing came just days before his 55th birthday on Saturday, and nearly three years to the day of his arrest at dawn on 9 December 2008, when the startled governor asked one federal agent: “Is this a joke?” In a state where corruption has been commonplace, images of Blagojevich being led away in handcuffs still came as a shock.
From the time of his arrest until his conviction, he launched a national campaign to proclaim his innocence, appearing on television talk and entertainment shows, even being a contestant on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
On his way out of the courthouse, Blagojevich cited Rudyard Kipling and said it was a time to be strong, to fight through adversity and be strong for his children. He said he and wife were heading home to speak to their daughters, and then left without answering any questions.
Blagojevich was also fined $20,000. Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich must serve 85 percent of his sentence, or about 12 years, said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
The Blagojeviches, who say his legal troubles also devastated them financially, put their home up for sale after he was convicted in June, and he would likely want to find a buyer before he heads off to prison. They initially listed it for $1.07 million but reportedly lowered the price recently by several thousand dollars.
“It’s profoundly sad that we are here for the second time in five years to discuss the conviction and sentencing of a governor of Illinois,” said Fitzgerald, referring to the conviction of Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan.
Fitzgerald said at a news conference that the 14-year sentence sends a strong message “that the public has had enough and that judges have had enough. This has to stop.”
It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery and attempted extortion.
Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time. Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: “No. I don’t let myself go there.”
While Blagojevich will likely end up at a minimal security prison, he’ll be largely cut off from the outside world.
Visits by family are strictly limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job – possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors – at just 12¢ an hour. [via Reuters, Guardian, Huffington Post and CBS]