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.
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.
In Illinois, former Gov. George Ryan is currently behind bars serving a 6-1/2 year sentence for racketeering and fraud convictions.
The 14-year sentence is “clearly meant to send a message” to deter others, says Joseph DiBenedetto, a defense attorney in New York City who once represented crime boss Peter Gotti. However, in this case, that message would still resonate even if the sentence was in the single digits, he says.
Blagojevich “is broken anyway,” Mr. DiBenedetto says. “A person who is in their mid-50s, who is financially in trouble, who will be branded with that scarlet letter ‘F’ for felony when they are released so the likelihood of them getting a job are slim to none – [prosecutors] have already done a good job. He’s already in a position where he will struggle for the rest of his life.”
Advocates of the long sentence say tough measures are especially needed in Illinois because of the state’s systemic problem with public corruption. Whether or not Blagojevich increased his bankroll as a result of his scheming, they say, is beside the point when compared with how much corruption costs taxpayers.
“The damage that Blagojevich did to Illinois’ political environment is far more severe than whatever money went into his pocket and campaign coffers,” says David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an advocacy nonprofit based in Chicago.
The judge framed the sentence as a way to deter others who might attempt to use their political stature for personal gain.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn, disfigured, and not easily repaired. The harm here is not measured in the value or money or property … the harm is the erosion of the public trust in government,” Zagel said.
Blagojevich received a total of 18 felony convictions for corruption during two trials in 2010 and 2011.
In addition to the sentence, Zagel fined Blagojevich $20,000 and two years of supervision following his incarceration.
Blagojevich is ordered to surrender to the US Bureau of Prisons by Feb. 16. Federal rules says he must serve at least 85 percent of his sentence, which means he may be released in a little under 12 years.
In a statement to reporters outside the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago, Blagojevich said he plans to continue “fighting on through all this adversity.”
His immediate plans were more direct: “This is also a time for … me to come home so we can explain to our kids, our babies … what happened, what all this means, and where we’re going from here.”