CHICAGO (Reuters) - A jury convicted disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on Monday of corruption for trying to trade the U.S. senate seat once held by President Barack Obama for financial and personal gain.
Blagojevich, a two-term Democrat thrown out of office in 2009, was found guilty on 17 of 20 counts by the jury of 11 women and one man. Several of the convictions call for prison terms of up to 20 years, though he is likely to receive a lesser penalty.
“I frankly am stunned,” the normally effusive Blagojevich said after the verdict. “There’s not more to say other than we want to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and try to sort things out.”
The conviction of the flamboyant Blagojevich, 54, contrasted with the inconclusive end to the former governor’s first trial in August 2010 when jurors deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts against him. He was convicted of lying to investigators, and prosecutors opted to retry him.
In seven days on the witness stand, Blagojevich insisted he was merely engaged in political gamesmanship but did not intend to sell the Senate seat or anything else. Instead, he said he was attempting to gain leverage to advance his policy agenda and admitted a tendency to talk too much.
One of the jurors told reporters after the verdict that she found Blagojevich’s testimony “manipulative” and that it was “very clear” he was making a trade for the senate seat. None of the jurors identified themselves.
Prosecutors argued he was clearly seeking to extort campaign contributions and other benefits in exchange for official acts, even if there was no evidence he received any.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Blagojevich’s actions went beyond “politics as usual.”
“There is legitimate politics. There are grey areas,” Fitzgerald said. “Selling a senate seat, shaking down a children’s hospital and squeezing a person to give money before you sign a bill that benefits them is not a grey area, it’s a crime.”
Zagel ordered Blagojevich to remain in the Chicago area until he is sentenced. Former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer said he expected Zagel to sentence Blagojevich to between seven and 10 years in prison.
The jury acquitted Blagojevich of a single bribery count related to donations sought from a construction contractor. The jury deadlocked on two other counts, one related to a school grant sought by then-U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel.
Key evidence in the case was profanity-laced FBI recordings of Blagojevich speaking with aides and political associates. His tirades, along with his carefully-groomed black hair and pricey wardrobe, made him the butt of jokes.
When the charges against Blagojevich and his top aide were announced in December 2008, the case threatened to taint the Obama administration.
Blagojevich instructed aides to seek from the incoming administration either a Cabinet post, an ambassadorship or another high-paying position for him in exchange for naming Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat.
Former White House Chief of Staff Emanuel, Chicago’s new mayor, testified that the incoming administration never offered Blagojevich anything.
Obama and Blagojevich also shared a friendship with Antonin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago businessman and political fund-raiser who was convicted of bribery related to his unofficial role filling state jobs in Blagojevich’s administration.
Rezko did not testify but the corrupt practices revealed in his trial and the conviction of Blagojevich’s Republican predecessor George Ryan have helped stigmatize the state’s political establishment.
“I don’t think one should underestimate the resiliency of the practice of corruption in the state of Illinois. It’s a hideous bog,” law professor Ronald Allen of Northwestern University told Reuters.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he hoped today’s verdict “draws this sad and sordid chapter in Illinois history to a close.”
Blagojevich was a local prosecutor before marrying the daughter of a powerful city alderman who eased him into Congress as a U.S. Representative for Chicago’s North Side.
Blagojevich later feuded with father-in-law Richard Mell, who may have fueled the federal investigation by saying the then-governor had put state jobs up for sale.
Blagojevich was the first Democrat to be elected Illinois governor in 30 years in 2002.
After his dramatic arrest by FBI agents, Blagojevich broke an unspoken rule of silence often followed by defendants by protesting his innocence and granting extensive television interviews.
The state legislature impeached, and then threw him out of office on January 29, 2009. His estranged lieutenant governor, Democrat Pat Quinn, was sworn in and won a full term in 2010.
An unemployed father of two daughters and saddled with debts, Blagojevich sought roles on reality television shows, acted as a pitchman and wrote a memoir to earn money.
He had a short stint on “Celebrity Apprentice” but was fired by show host Donald Trump.
Chicago resident Coby Hakalir, 33, said the jury took its time and he trusted that justice was done.
“I hope this decision brings us one step closer to cleaning up this corrupt state,” Hakalir said.
Additional reporting by Eric Johnson and Karen Pierog; Editing by Andrew Stern, Cynthia Johnston and Greg McCune