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Judge sides against Blago on key issues; daughter makes plea

Updated: January 8, 2012 8:14AM

At the end of a relentlessly punishing day for Rod Blagojevich, the words of his eldest daughter pleading for mercy hushed the room and drew tears from the former first lady of Illinois.

“I will not be able to handle my father not being around. … I need him here,” Amy Blagojevich wrote in a letter read at her father’s sentencing hearing.

“I need him here for my high school graduation … I’ll need him when my heart gets broken.”

At the first mention of the children, Patti Blagojevich began to cry, her brother pulling her close, and the ex-governor hung his head, one of his lawyers rubbing his shoulder.

It capped a brutal day for Rod Blagojevich as U.S. District Judge James Zagel rejected virtually every legal argument Blagojevich made, accused him of concocting a story about his plans for a U.S. Senate appointment and raised doubts about everything from whether the former governor really “came from nothing” to whether he was truly an “extraordinary father.”

“He would be in the same position as any other father who ‘was always there’ for his children,” Zagel challenged defense lawyer Carolyn Gurland.

The setbacks foreshadow what’s expected to be an ominous final day of the sentencing hearing on Wednesday in which Blagojevich himself is expected to make a personal appeal to the judge.

The defense asked Zagel to show the former governor mercy by focusing on a father being away from his daughters, 15 and 8, who were not in court. The emotional appeal may be among the ex-governor’s only chances for leniency as the possible length of his sentence seemed to ramp up as he lost every major legal battle he faced.

Rejecting a series of defense arguments, Zagel said Blagojevich’s crimes technically qualify him for a crippling prison term of 30 years to life — though the judge quickly deemed that inappropriate “in the context of this case.”

Still, it signaled the improbability of Zagel granting the kind of leniency the defense seeks — less than 3 ½ years. Prosecutors asked for 15 to 20 years.

Zagel has only set aside two days for sentencing, but Tuesday’s events had gone longer than scheduled. Prosecutors say they will talk for just 20 minutes on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Zagel questioned Blagojevich’s rags-to-riches story, stopping Gurland as she recounted Blagojevich’s background as the son of a Serbian immigrant detained in a Nazi war camp. Zagel referenced a remark Blagojevich had previously made to a court official that he had come from “nothing.”

“You say, ‘he came from an immigrant family.’ It was intact. [His father] taught his sons the value of hard work. He has produced two accomplished and successful children,” Zagel said. “Why is this ‘nothing?’ I don’t understand this. This is the backbone of America. This is the classic American story. This is not ‘nothing.’”

The day saw a new defense strategy as at least one Blagojevich lawyer, Shelly Sorosky, admitted that it was illegal for Blagojevich to try to get something in return for an appointment to Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat in 2008.

Blagojevich has long been criticized for trying to blame others, including saying that advisers encouraged him to plot for a personal benefit and that he didn’t know it was against the law get something in exchange for the official act.

“He asked for a job in return for that,” Sorosky said. “We accept that’s a crime and that’s a fact. That crime does not call for a 15-year jail sentence.”

In part of his calculation that Blagojevich’s guideline sentence could be 30 years to life, Zagel said he did not believe Blagojevich’s argument that he was engaging in typical political horse trading.

Blagojevich contended he was really considering appointing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate as a way to appease her father, state House Speaker Michael Madigan and get him to pass a favorable legislative package.

“I think this is untrue. I thought it was untrue when he said it. I still think it’s untrue [now]. I conclude that he seized on this particular [argument] before trial because it was one of the few moves available to him that may have been legal,” Zagel said of Blagojevich.

Zagel said he does believe Blagojevich was leaning toward appointing U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill) to get $1.5 million in contributions from Jackson’s supporters.

Zagel ruled that the amount of money sought should count toward making Blagojevich eligible for more time in prison.

Probation officials who put the value of the Senate seat at nothing were wrong, the judge said, because they based their estimate on the assumption the governor wouldn’t take the money.

“The $1.5 million was still very much on the table, and the amount the defendant expected to receive if he accepted the offer,” the judge said.

The defense called just one witness to testify, a doctor who touted Blagojevich’s All Kids Program, which gives insurance to kids statewide. His lawyers did read from a series of letters, including those penned by a nun, one of his neighbors and his daughter’s ice skating coach. And they showed a video of an older woman who said she prayed for the ex-governor after she got free bus rides through his initiative benefiting seniors.

The last word though went to Blagojevich’s wife, whom the ex-governor frequently turned to throughout the day. He started his day in court by touching her hand and saying: “I love you.”

In her letter to Zagel, Patti Blagojevich begged “please be merciful.”

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