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‘Sorry’ Blagojevich gets 14-year prison sentence

Updated: January 9, 2012 9:12AM

After years of proclaiming his innocence, demanding that “all the tapes” be played and practically challenging the top prosecutor to a duel, Rod Blagojevich on Wednesday learned in the end that what really mattered was what he had to say to an audience of one.

But by now, he had largely lost that audience.

Even taking into account the somber apology from the former governor, U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced Blagojevich to a crippling 14 years in prison, two years more than the term the same judge gave a cooperating mobster who killed 14 people and one of the stiffest sentences imposed for political corruption in Illinois history.

“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired,” Zagel said in announcing Blagojevich’s punishment for 18 corruption convictions that included attempting to sell Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat. “You did that damage.”

Blagojevich, who was seated with his feet crossed and hands clasped as Zagel read his sentence, slightly lowered his head after learning his prison term.

His wife, Patti, put her hand up to her mouth, but did not cry, as she had at previous hearings.

Zagel delivered the harsh term even after factoring in that Blagojevich had accepted responsibility through an apology that many doubted would ever come.

Over 20 minutes, Blagojevich in a low voice sometimes cracking with emotion, said he took responsibility for his crimes.

“I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and the things I did and I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody. I’ve accepted all of it,” Blagojevich said in a voice low and devoid of its usual animation.

The courtroom fell quiet as Blagojevich spoke. At times, it grew so hushed all else that could be heard was the scribbling of pens on paper.

“The jury convicted me,” the former governor continued. “They convicted me because those were my actions ... I caused it all. I’m not blaming anybody. I was the governor, and I should have known better.”

Blagojevich apologized to the state, to his onetime codefendant brother, to his two daughters, 15 and 8, and to his wife, Patti who he said stood by him through the worst of times.

“[Because of] my stupidity and my mistakes and things I’ve talked about and discussed, my children have had to suffer,” Blagojevich said. “I’ve ruined their innocence. They have to face the fact when they go out into the world that their father is a convicted felon, and it’s not like their name is Smith, and they can hide.”

After learning his fate, a red-eyed Blagojevich whispered to his wife: “You OK? Stay strong.”

The two later embraced in the courtroom and Patti Blagojevich buried her head in her husband’s chest.

The once-popular Illinois governor who promised reform after seeing the scandals of his predecessor George Ryan now faces more than twice as much time in prison as Ryan, who received a 6 ½-year term.

Prosecutors wanted more.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar had asked for 15 to 20 years in prison, saying Blagojevich was manipulative and spent seven days on the witness stand during his trial earlier this year perjuring himself.

“He tried to lie his way out of a guilty verdict,” he said. “He is incredibly manipulative, and he knows how to be. To his credit, he is clever about it.”

Schar asked Zagel to send a message by sentencing Blagojevich.

“A message must be sent to the people of Illinois that when they are victimized by corruption, their frustration, their disappointment, their cynicism their disenfranchisement from political process, they’re being heard,” Schar said. “The people have had enough. They have had enough of this defendant. They have had enough of people like him.”

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said that having two Illinois governors convicted of crimes in the same century would be too much.

“We’ve seen it happen twice in five years,” Fitzgerald said, calling it “profoundly sad.” “The public has had enough, and judges have had enough,” Fitzgerald said of the 14-year sentence. “This needs to stop. To put it very, very simply, we don’t want to be back here again.”

After the sentence was announced, dozens of people stood still throughout the federal courthouse lobby staring toward the elevators, hoping to catch a glimpse of the former governor.

News helicopters followed Blagojevich from his Northwest Side home to the courthouse and back.

One defense lawyer said he was shocked Zagel gave Blagojevich a break off his sentence for acceptance of responsibility.

“In most cases you automatically don’t get acceptance of responsibility if you went to trial, and he went to two trials,” said Larry Beaumont.

Zagel also said he believed Blagojevich sincerely cared about children and credited him for his programs, such as All Kids, an insurance program Blagojevich passed while governor.

“I do also believe what he did for children’s health was motivated by a true concern for the welfare of children,” Zagel said.

Legal observers say the punishment was a combination of Illinois judges having had enough and Blagojevich’s own actions.

Bruce L. Ottley, a professor at DePaul University College of Law, said Blagojevich was not punished for the sins of the state of Illinois, but for his own, and it was his lack of genuine contrition in the face of two trials and mountains of recorded evidence that cost him.

“Even in his request for clemency, all he seemed to say was, ‘I made some mistakes,’” Ottley said.

Blagojevich becomes the fourth governor convicted of a felony. Operation Greylord — in which judges took bribes —remains in the public’s memory, too, he said. So 14 years is, Ottley said, about right this time.

“We’re an embarrassment,” he said.

But another legal expert was shocked by the sentence.

“I think it’s outrageous,” said DePaul Law Professor Len Cavise, likening it to “cruel and unusual punishment.” “The judge and the prosecution went off the deep end on this one.”

Former U.S. Attorney Patrick Collins, who prosecuted Ryan, said judges are taking a more serious look at public corruption cases.

“Judges are now looking at these corruption cases like guns and drug cases,” Collins said, referencing the 10 ½ years former Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko received. “That should send a sobering message to politicians everywhere. For Mr. Blagojevich and his family, that’s a very sad and terrible burden to carry, but it is one the judge said he brought on himself.”

Double-digit prison time may staunch future corruption, but it won’t halt it altogether.

“Just like you can’t indict your way to public integrity,” Collins said, “you can’t sentence your way to public integrity.”

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