Updated at 8:47 p.m.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich left a federal prison in Colorado Tuesday evening, ending a nearly eight-year legal odyssey that will reunite him with his family in Chicago.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed Blagojevich left the Englewood federal prison at some point before 7:20 p.m. Chicago time, and a family spokesman announced a “homecoming press conference” outside the family’s Northwest Side home Wednesday morning.
“It’s been a long time. I’m profoundly grateful to President Trump. It’s a profound and everlasting gratitude. He didn’t have to do this. He is a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor,” Blagojevich told WGN in an exclusive interview at a Denver airport.
He later joked: “Misfortune has silvered my hair.”
Blagojevich’s wife, Patti Blagojevich, expressed her feelings Tuesday night on Facebook: “Thank you to all my Facebook friends that have stuck with me and encouraged me over the last 8 years.At long last-Rod’s coming home!!!!”
The rapidly changing developments followed a brazen political display by President Donald Trump to end the 14-year prison term of the disgraced former governor, a politician the president has said was guilty of no more than engaging in “a lot of bravado.”
“Yes, we commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich,” Trump told reporters Tuesday afternoon. “He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him.”
The commutation of Blagojevich comes as Trump is facing increasing criticism — including by former Department of Justice workers — for intervening in the corruption sentencing of his friend and former campaign aide, Roger Stone. Four veteran federal prosecutors either quit Stone’s case or resigned altogether in protest after the DOJ overruled the prison term they proposed for Stone, which could have been up to nine years.
Blagojevich, 63, was convicted in 2011 of crimes that included seeking to sell an appointment to Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and trying to shake down a children’s hospital.
Not surprisingly, Illinois Democrats were swift to criticize Trump’s decision to free Blagojevich, including Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, who was dogged in his campaign by comments he made on the secret Blagojevich wiretaps.
President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time.— Governor JB Pritzker (@GovPritzker) February 18, 2020
But the Illinois Republican Party was also critical of the decision.
“In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it’s important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider said in a statement. “Rod Blagojevich is certainly no exception. The former Governor’s proven record of corruption is a stain upon Illinois and its citizens. We must stand up and send the message that corruption will not be tolerated in Illinois.”
The president’s action did not involve a full pardon, which would have erased Blagojevich’s criminal conviction. Rather, a commutation would result in Blagojevich’s release but his conviction would remain intact. It would also appear not to undo the effects of Blagojevich’s impeachment, which forbids him from running for state or local office in Illinois ever again.
Trump’s decision is a repudiation of a federal court jury that convicted Blagojevich of 17 counts of fraud, attempted extortion and bribery in 2011 — and of U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who imposed the 14-year prison sentence on Blagojevich. A federal appeals court and even the U.S. Supreme Court rejected petitions for Blagojevich’s release.
The former federal prosecution team that put Blagojevich in prison issued a statement shortly after Trump’s announcement:
“Extortion by a public official is a very serious crime, routinely prosecuted throughout the United States whenever, as here, it can be detected and proven. That has to be the case in America: a justice system must hold public officials accountable for corruption,” according to part of the statement. “It would be unfair to their victims and the public to do otherwise.”
“While the President has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich’s sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account.”
Trump’s decision also represents a shot at some of the same law enforcement officials who ended Blagojevich’s political career and have been pivotal in the Russia investigation involving the president — namely Robert Mueller. He was special counsel in the Russia probe targeting those in Trump’s orbit, and he led the FBI when Blagojevich was arrested in late 2008.
‘The kids are overjoyed’
Trump first signaled that he was considering commuting Blagojevich’s sentence during a brief discussion with reporters aboard Air Force One on May 31, 2018, and then again multiple times last summer. Trump had Blagojevich as a 2010 contestant on his NBC show, The Apprentice, but eventually booted him.
Trump, who mischaracterized Blagojevich’s sentence as 18 years during his statements last year and on Aug. 7 aboard Air Force One, said the ex-governor didn’t deserve to have been imprisoned, and that his only crime was “braggadoccio.”
“He was given close to 18 years in prison,” Trump said. “And a lot of people thought it was unfair, like a lot of other things — and it was the same gang, the [James] Comey gang and all these sleazebags that did it. And his name is Rod Blagojevich. And I’m thinking about commuting his sentence.”
“He’s been in jail for seven years over a phone call where nothing happens — over a phone call which he shouldn’t have said what he said, but it was braggadocio you would say. I would think that there have been many politicians — I’m not one of them by the way — that have said a lot worse over the telephone,” Trump said.
Fox News reported that after Trump’s first August statement in support of clemency, Blagojevich made it all the way to the processing section of the Colorado prison in which he’s housed — the last stop before inmates are released — before the Trump administration cooled to the idea.
Trump’s dramatic pronouncement answers an unrelenting push by former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich to win the release of her husband from a federal prison in Littleton, Colo.
Patti Blagojevich’s sister, Deb Mell, emerged onto the porch Tuesday after a rideshare driver arrived to deliver food: “The kids are overjoyed and Patti’s ecstatic,” she said.
Patti Blagojevich, who comes from an influential family of Chicago Democrats, went on a media blitz in 2018 to encourage Trump to step in.
“You have to remember there was no kickbacks to us, no fancy cars or trips, or no misusing of our campaign funds, no personal enrichment of any kind. This was simply campaign contributions for his campaign fund,” Patti Blagojevich said in a May 31, 2018, interview on Fox News. “And so, it is stark how unjust the sentence is given especially that nothing ever happened.”
Patti Blagojevich sat down for more than six hours of interviews with WBEZ as part of the station’s Public Official A podcast. She laid out in stark terms how the president’s remarks and the yearlong silence afterward had impact her family, particularly in the way her husband and youngest daughter, Annie, interacted through email.
Listen to Public Official A, a WBEZ podcast on the rise and fall of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
“After the president said what he said, all of the sudden you try really hard not to think about it because it’s so disappointing. And after the president said what he said, you almost like let yourself think that. Like, what would I make him for dinner the first night he comes home after eating prison food for years, you know. It’s that kind of stuff. And here we are, months, still waiting. That’s a dangerous game to play,” Patti Blagojevich said. “Hope is a dangerous thing when your hopes keep getting thwarted.”
The case against Blagojevich
Blagojevich, a Democrat, was elected in 2002 on a promise to restore ethics in Springfield. He replaced his scandal-tainted Republican predecessor, George Ryan, who wound up being convicted of federal corruption charges tied to the government’s licenses-for-bribes investigation.
Blagojevich won reelection in 2006. But his tenure in office was marked by pay-to-play scandals and was irretrievably damaged with his December 2008 arrest by FBI agents, who were investigating his attempts to financially capitalize on his ability to appoint a successor to Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich became known for his foul-mouthed rants on wiretaps released after his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest while still governor. On the most notorious recording, he gushed about profiting by naming someone to the seat Obama vacated to become president: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f------ golden. And I’m just not giving it up for f------ nothing.”
Part of the government’s case against Blagojevich also focused on his shakedowns of a racetrack executive and hospital CEO and an offer to trade actions by his office for campaign contributions — discussions federal investigators captured on profanity-laced, wiretapped recordings.
Those wiretaps would emerge in the state legislature’s 2009 impeachment and vote to oust him from office, making Blagojevich the first Illinois governor to face such a sanction. The penalty included a lifetime ban that blocks him from ever running for state or local office again.
The former top FBI agent in Chicago, Robert Grant, told WBEZ’s Public Official A podcast that Blagojevich was not deserving of presidential clemency and that he couldn’t understand why Trump would even consider it.
“What the president’s actual motivations for considering this commutation, I don’t know. But it appears to be uneducated. I don’t trust President Trump and his flippant TV-watching comments on something like this. I find that … it’s revolting to me.” said Grant, whose office led the probe into Blagojevich. “So do you want to side with the good guys or the bad guys? If Trump wants to side with the bad guys and live in the cesspool that is Rod Blagojevich and his band of cutthroats, that’s for him.”
As a result of his impeachment, Blagojevich is forever barred from running for state or local office in Illinois. He also faces the threat of permanently losing his law license after the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission moved to disbar Blagojevich in early August because of his past convictions. His license remains suspended, according to state records.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Dave McKinney and Tony Arnold cover state government and politics for WBEZ. McKinney narrated WBEZ’s “Public Official A” podcast, which charted Blagojevich’s rise and fall in Illinois politics. Follow them at @davemckinney and @tonyjarnold. Robert Wildeboer contributed to this report.