Judge sentences Blagojevich to 14 years on corruption charges
Updated at 3:40 p.m.
Rod Blagojevich has been sentenced to 14 years in prison, and ordered to turn himself in on February 16 of next year.
“Every governor, even our worst, helped someone and does good things for people," federal Judge James Zagel said to the former Illinois governor. “The harm [of your crimes] is the erosion of public trust in government.”
Before leaving the court building, Blagojevich stopped to briefly address a crowd of TV cameras. He quoted from the Rudyard Kipling poem "If," and spoke of fighting adversity and having to explain the sentence to his children. Blagojevich took no questions from reporters and, upon leaving, simply said: "See ya soon."
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the sentence "sends a strong message that the public has had enough, and that judges have had enough."
"To put it very, very simply, we don't want to be back here again," Fitzgerald told reporters. "And the message that needs to go out to officials who are thinking about being corrupt, is that the consequences - not just for the state, but for people who go corrupt themselves - are severe."
With credit for good behavior, Blagojevich would serve about 12 years of the 14-year sentence.
Zagel announced the sentence just over an hour after Blagojevich stood before the judge and pleaded for mercy, apologizing profusely for his actions.
“I thought they were permissible and I was mistaken. The jury convicted me. Those were my actions. Those were things that I said, ” Blagojevich told Zagel, in a soft, though not shy, voice. “I caused it all. I’m not blaming anybody. I was the governor and I should have known better. And I am - I am - just so incredibly sorry.”
“I have nobody to blame for myself, for my stupidity," he said.
Blagojevich also told Zagel his defiant tone throughout his legal troubles meant no disrespect to the judge, the federal court system, or to prosecutors. And he apologized for many of those statements.
“And I want to now do my final apology, and that is to my family,” Blagojevich said. “My life is ruined - at least now - my life is in ruins. My political career is over. I can’t be a lawyer again. We can’t afford the home we live in.”
Earlier in the hearing, a federal prosecutor called Blagojevich “manipulative” and said his criminal acts were “perverse” and resulted in “real harm.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar argued that Blagojevich should go to prison for 15-to-20 years. Schar told Zagel that a message needs to be sent to Blagojevich, to other politicians and to the people of Illinois that corruption will not be tolerated.
“You, judge, and you alone, are the only one that can send that message and we ask you to do so,” Schar said.
The judges’ rulings and comments during Tuesday’s portion of the hearing indicated he was unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. Zagel sided with prosecutors that federal sentencing guidelines call for Blagojevich’s punishment to fall in the 30-to-life range.
But, like prosecutors, Zagel said Tuesday he believes such a prison term to be too harsh.
A sentence that long, he said, is “simply not appropriate in the context of this case.”
Still, Zagel agreed with prosecutors that Blagojevich was the leader of the conspiracy, saying the argument that Blagojevich was being guided by others “is not consistent with what we heard on the [wiretap] recordings or in the testimony of the witnesses or - for that matter - what we heard from the defendant on the witness stand.”
“There is no question that his tone of voice [on the recordings] was demanding,” Zagel said. “He was not a supplicant.”
Zagel also said he believes the former governor lied on the stand during his corruption trial this summer. Blagojevich was convicted on a total of 17 federal counts in that trial, including that he attempted to leverage his power to appoint a U.S. senator for personal gain, and held other government action hostage in exchange for campaign contributions.
"Judge Zagel's sentence is a clear warning to all elected officials that public corruption of any form will not be tolerated."
-- Republican U.S. Senator Mark Kirk
During Blagojevich’s first trial the previous summer, jurors deadlocked on all nearly all the charges. The sole exception was a guilty verdict for lying to federal agents.
Blagojevich’s lawyers calculated the federal sentencing guidelines for these convictions at roughly 3-to-4 years, though on Tuesday they asked for the “lowest sentence that the law allows.”
“His family deserves mercy,” attorney Aaron Goldstein told federal Judge James Zagel. “They are not the ones that have to be responsible for these crimes.”
To make this point further, Goldstein read a letter from the Blagojevich’s oldest daughter, Amy, and played a phone call – caught on a government wiretap – of the entire Blagojevich family. It includes Patti reminding her husband to do the dishes.
This is “a very simple call that does show in real life terms the bond that is between Mr. Blagojevich and his family,” Goldstein said.
The defense also said Blagojevich’s sentencing should take into account his record as governor. They called a pediatrician to the stand who testified that the “All-Kids” insurance program championed by Blagojevich provides a critical public health service.
The ex-governor’s attorneys also played for the court recorded comments from an elderly woman who benefitted from a free transit benefit for seniors that Blagojevich muscled through the legislature.
WBEZ's Elliott Ramos contributed to this story.
Photos: Blagojevich throughout the years