CHICAGO (Reuters) - Three years after he was arrested outside his Chicago home on federal corruption charges, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Blagojevich is the fourth former Illinois governor to be convicted of criminal charges since 1973, and received the longest sentence.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said he “could not comprehend” the defense position that even if Blagojevich were guilty, the governor’s conduct caused no harm to the state of Illinois.
“The harm is the erosion of public trust in government,” Zagel said, adding that when the governor’s office is tainted, the fabric of all government “is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired. You did that damage.”
Blagojevich, who will turn 55 on Saturday, was convicted in June of multiple corruption counts for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by then president-elect Barack Obama and for using his office to extort campaign contributions and jobs for himself and his wife.
From the time of his arrest until his conviction, he launched a national campaign to proclaim his innocence, appearing on television talk and entertainment shows, even being a contestant on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice.”
Wednesday was the first time Blagojevich expressed contrition, telling the judge he was “unbelievably sorry,” but stopping short of admitting guilt.
“I‘m here convicted of crimes,” Blagojevich said. “The jury decided I was guilty. I‘m accepting of it. I acknowledge it and of course I‘m unbelievably sorry for it.”
Zagel said Blagojevich had now taken responsibility for his conduct and said he considered that in calculating his sentence. But ultimately, the apology came too late, Zagel said.
Zagel also disputed the defense theory that Blagojevich was misled by his staff.
“The governor was not marched along the criminal path by his staff,” Zagel said. “He marched them and ruined a few of their careers.”
Blagojevich was also fined $20,000. Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich must serve 85 percent of his sentence, or about 12 years, said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
“It’s profoundly sad that we are here for the second time in five years to discuss the conviction and sentencing of a governor of Illinois,” said Fitzgerald, referring to the conviction of Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan.
Fitzgerald said at a news conference that the 14-year sentence sends a strong message “that the public has had enough and that judges have had enough. This has to stop.”
Richard Kling, a clinical professor at Chicago Kent College of Law, contrasted Blagojevich’s case with Ryan‘s, noting that Ryan was convicted of crimes that occurred prior to his holding the governor’s office, while he was Illinois’ secretary of state.
Blagojevich, a flamboyant two-term Democrat, was known for his love of Elvis Presley, his tendency to quote poetry and his full head of carefully tended thick black hair. He was criticized while in office for rarely being in the state capital of Springfield, and letting legislation stall.
He was ousted from office in 2009 after impeachment proceedings by the state legislature.
The White House declined comment on Blagojevich’s sentence.
During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence suggesting Blagojevich sought $1.5 million in campaign contributions from supporters of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., in exchange for appointing him to the Senate seat. They also said Blagojevich sought a cabinet post or a high paying Washington job in exchange for appointing Obama’s choice for the Senate seat, Valerie Jarrett, now a White House aide.
Federal authorities, who had been taping Blagojevich’s profanity-laced conversations with aides, arrested him in December 2008, before he could complete the crime, prosecutors have argued.
He was also convicted of attempting to shake down the head of a children’s hospital for campaign cash in exchange for authorizing an increase in doctor reimbursement fees, and for shaking down the head of Illinois racetracks in exchange for approving legislation favorable to the industry.
Blagojevich was tried twice -- first in August 2010, when he was convicted of one charge of lying to investigators and jurors deadlocked on 23 other counts. After a second trial this year, he was convicted of 17 of 20 counts.
Blagojevich must report to prison on February 16.
Writing and reporting by Janan Hanna; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Greg McCune