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Blagojevich Sentenced to 14 Years in Prison 

 

New York Times
December 7, 2011
By Monica Davey

CHICAGO — Rod R. Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois who for years proclaimed he was innocent of federal corruption charges, apologized on Wednesday for his crimes. He apologized to his trial judge. He apologized to his family. He apologized to the residents of Illinois, who had heard his voice on secretly recorded phone calls as he crassly spoke of what he might get in exchange for a United States Senate seat.

“I caused it all,” Mr. Blagojevich said in a gravelly, halting voice as he stood before the federal judge who was minutes away from deciding his prison term. “I’m not blaming anyone. I was the governor, and I should have known better. I am just so incredibly sorry.”

Apparently, it was not enough. Mr. Blagojevich, a Democrat who won two terms in the governor’s office, was sentenced to 14 years in prison on his 18 corruption convictions, counts that include trying to sell or trade the Senate seat that became vacant when President Obama went to the White House. The sentence was just short of what prosecutors had sought, tougher than those for previous Illinois governors convicted of crimes, and was widely viewed as a particularly firm punishment intended to send a loud, memorable signal in a state that has been plagued with political corruption for decades.

“The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” Judge James B. Zagel said before telling Mr. Blagojevich his fate. “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”

Around the state, political leaders in both parties lauded the decision as a needed, if sorry, outcome. Advocates of political reform said the sentence delivered a warning in a state where political leaders — some aldermen, congressmen, and even the governor who immediately preceded Mr. Blagojevich, George Ryan — seemed to be headed off to jail on a regular basis.

“If there’s a public official out there who is thinking about committing a crime, boy, they ought to be thinking twice,” Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said of Mr. Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence, of which he is expected to serve almost 12 years at a minimum. Mr. Ryan, a Republican who was also convicted of federal corruption charges, is serving far less: six and a half years.

Mr. Blagojevich showed little reaction to his sentence, though his lawyers had argued vehemently for a far shorter term. He seemed aware by Wednesday that a significant prison term was inevitable, and, technically, the charges could have put him behind bars for life. After speaking to the court — and making his first public apologies — he comforted his wife, Patti, who sat in the front row, crying at times.

Since his arrest three years ago and the unraveling of his political career that swiftly followed, Mr. Blagojevich had announced at every opportunity that he had done nothing wrong. Prosecutors said that he had sought personal gain — campaign donations, especially — in exchange for making an appointment to the Senate seat and for state policies related to hospitals and a racetrack. But he insisted, on television talk shows and in testimony at his own trial, that his political chatter did not amount to law breaking.

On Wednesday, though, that changed. Mr. Blagojevich, a lifelong politician who served as a legislator in Springfield and Washington before becoming governor, said quietly that he accepted his jury’s findings, acknowledged them, and was sorry. “I never set out to cross lines,” Mr. Blagojevich said, in a speech to the court that lasted less than an hour and touched on the worries he had now for his young daughters, for his family’s financial survival, and for all that stood ahead.

“I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions, words, things that I did, that I thought I could do,” he said.

Judge Zagel said he viewed Mr. Blagojevich’s new acceptance of responsibility as a mitigating factor as he weighed sentencing for two trials — the second of which was conducted when jurors in the first deadlocked on most counts. Other observers, including some jurors from the two trials, seemed skeptical of his words, coming when they did.

More debated in political circles, though, was where the whole chapter left Illinois. Would Mr. Blagojevich’s circumstances really put an end to so much corruption here?

Connie Wilson, the forewoman from Mr. Blagojevich’s most recent trial, said she thought the outcome would send a message. “We just don’t want this anymore,” she said.

But others said it would take more than a single prison sentence, and more even than the state campaign finance and public records overhauls that were initiated in the wake of Mr. Blagojevich’s arrest in 2008. On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon called for stronger ethics laws and financial disclosure requirements. And Gov. Pat Quinn, the lieutenant governor who took over as governor with Mr. Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal, called for new protections. “We have more to do,” Mr. Quinn said.

Mr. Blagojevich, who will turn 55 on Saturday, was granted until Feb. 16 to report to prison. As he left the courthouse, passing with his wife through the clutch of waiting members of the news media, he had uncharacteristically few words. As is his habit, he quoted from memory a line from a poem — this time “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. And he said it was a time to be strong for his family.

“This is also a time for Patti and me to get home so we can explain to our kids — our babies Amy and Annie — what happened, what all this means, and where we’re going from here,” Mr. Blagojevich said solemnly as tears streamed down his wife’s face. “So we’re going to keep fighting on through this adversity and,” he said, pausing, “see you soon.”