December 7, 2011
Illinois officials lined up to support the stiff sentence imposed Wednesday on former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and legal experts and ethics watchdogs said it may drive home to politicians that the price of public corruption is climbing sharply.
"Maybe the problem (with continued corruption) is that the incarcerations haven't been severe enough. Public officials have to recognize they can't abuse the public trust without a high cost," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform."
Meanwhile, Illinois residents seemed divided over whether it's appropriate to hand down a 14-year sentence for someone who didn't commit violence or steal anyone's life savings.
"He didn't kill anybody," said Chicago architect Miguel Canon. "You do murder, you're out in eight years. That's what doesn't make sense to me."
But Karol Carr, who owns a bed-and-breakfast in the western Illinois town of Carthage, said Blagojevich should have been "put away forever."
"He's not some guy with a gun or doing drugs," the Republican businesswoman acknowledged. "But these people violate the people's trust, and I think that's a huge crime. That's what's upsetting to me. It sickens me."
Blagojevich's sentence could turn out to be an eye-opener for Illinois politicians. His punishment is more than twice what former Gov. George Ryan received. Blagojevich must serve about 85 percent of the sentence, meaning he'll be behind bars nearly 12 years.
But other dramatic moments in the history of Illinois corruption failed to discourage crooked politicians. Blagojevich himself followed a governor who left office in scandal. Blagojevich had promised to clean up Springfield, so he knew everyone was watching. But prosecutors turned up evidence that the Chicago Democrat's illegal scheming began even before he was sworn in.
Some officials issued comments Wednesday that seemed to treat the sentencing as the end of a story.
Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said it "closes a tragic chapter in Illinois politics."
Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican who ran against Blagojevich in 2006, said "the damage he has caused to our state will far outlast any prison sentence he will serve."
"He tarnished the state's reputation nationally and internationally, and he destroyed the public's trust in government," said Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat.
Others emphasized the need for further action to prevent corruption.
Gov. Pat Quinn, who vouched for Blagojevich's integrity when he was lieutenant governor, called for giving voters power to establish ethics standards for politicians without going through the General Assembly.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said Illinois should require officials to disclose more about their personal finances and debts.
Edwin Eisendrath, who challenged Blagojevich in the 2006 Democratic primary, said: "We should not be focusing on another governor going to jail. Instead we should be doing all we can to strengthen our democracy."
Some officials focused on politics. "Moving forward, Republicans in Illinois provide the only hope for reform and a return to fiscal sanity," said Pat Brady, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.
Brady's statement did not mention that Blagojevich's predecessor, a Republican, is now in federal prison.
Legal experts were cautious about making predictions about the long-term impact of Blagojevich's sentence.
"If someone told me that the very next governor after Ryan would be tried, convicted and sentenced for corruption acts, I would have said that they were crazy," said Patrick Collins, a former assistant U.S. attorney. "The sentence is stiff, and in combination with the (Blagojevich fundraiser Tony) Rezko sentence, says that corruption cases are being treated more like gun and drug cases."
Another former federal prosecutor, Joel Levin, said the long sentence was triggered not just by Blagojevich's illegal acts but his actions after being charged: attacking the prosecution, going on a nationwide media blitz, writing a book defending himself and, ultimately, lying on the witness stand.
"If you sat down and developed a strategy to get as long a sentence as possible, you couldn't have done better than he did," Levin said.