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Rod Blagojevich 14-year sentence a warning to corrupt politicians

Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison, a decision some legal experts found harsh. But the judge said the sentence was meant to send a message – and not just to Rod Blagojevich. 

By Staff writer / December 7, 2011

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich departs his home in Chicago Wednesday for the second day of his sentencing hearing on 18 corruption counts, including trying to to auction off President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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Chicago

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison Wednesday, ending a nearly three-year political saga that revealed the disturbing dynamics of backdoor deal-making often associated with Illinois politics.

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The sentence is less than half the 30-years-to-life calculation provided by federal sentencing guidelines.

US District Judge James Zagel agreed with federal prosecutors that because Mr. Blagojevich did not personally gain from his schemes, which involved attempting to sell President Obama’s former US Senate seat for $1.5 million in campaign contributions and political favors, he did not receive the maximum sentence.

Also helping lessen the sentence was Blagojevich’s apology, which he directed to Judge Zagel 20 minutes before the sentence was handed down, in which he admitted his life was “in ruins.”

“I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions.… I’m not blaming anybody. I have accepted responsibility for it.… I would hope you could find some mercy,” Blagojevich said.

However, many say Blagojevich’s sentence is excessive precisely because Blagojevich did not profit from his schemes.

Fourteen years is “an extraordinary amount of time in a public corruption case,” says Barry Pollack, a defense attorney in Washington specializing in economic and public corruption cases. He says he isn’t surprised by the sentence because it follows a current trend in both public corruption and economic fraud cases where “sentencing in each big case is greater than the one before it.”

In the current climate of economic uncertainty, with public anger directed at corporate greed and corrupt governance, federal judges are under pressure to send messages “that the government is tough on economic crime and on public corruption,” Mr. Pollack says.

“Judges are citizens, too, and they care what their colleagues, friends, and neighbors are going to think,” Pollack says. In many ways, federal sentences are a product of the times, especially when compared to similar cases of the past when sentences for economic fraud “seemed like speeding tickets.”

Two notable examples: Infamous junk bond felon Michael Milken received a 10-year sentence in 1990 and was released after less than two years, while Wall Street stock trader Ivan Boesky received a 3-1/2 year sentence for insider trading in 1987 and was released after two years.

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