Ex-Illinois gov could serve less than 14-year sentence
Chicago — A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned some of the most sensational convictions that sent former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich off to a lengthy stint in prison, ruling that the Democrat did not break the law when he sought to secure a Cabinet position in President Barack Obama’s administration in exchange for appointing an Obama adviser to the president’s former U.S. Senate seat.
The unanimous ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago means the 58-year-old — currently Inmate No. 40892-424 in a Colorado prison — could end up serving less than his original 14-year sentence. He has served more than three years behind bars so far.
The three-judge panel dismissed five of the 18 counts Blagojevich was convicted of. It offered a ray of hope for the ex-governor by ordering he be resentenced, although it suggested the original sentence wasn’t necessarily extreme, even when factoring in the newly tossed convictions.
The ruling addressed a key question in the Blagojevich case: Where is the line between legal and illegal political wheeling and dealing? The panel’s answer: When it came to Blagojevich’s attempt to land a Cabinet seat, he did not cross line. His attempts to trade the Senate seat for campaign cash, however, were illegal, the court concluded.
Blagojevich wanted a Cabinet job in exchange for appointing Obama friend Valerie Jarrett to Obama’s vacant Senate seat. After Blagojevich’s arrest, the seat went to Roland Burris, who served less than two years before a successor was chose in a special election.
In its ruling, the appeals courts pointed to how President Dwight Eisenhower named Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court allegedly after Warren offered Eisenhower key political support during the 1952 campaign.
“If the (Blagojevich) prosecutor is right, and a swap of political favors involving a job for one of the politicians is a felony, then if the standard account is true both the President of the United States (Eisenhower) and the Chief Justice of the United States should have gone to prison,” the ruling says.
Still, the ruling wasn’t a resounding win for Blagojevich. The appellate judges upheld allegations that he sought to sell the Senate seat. He had argued that he didn’t break the law because he never stated explicitly that he was willing to trade an appointment to the seat for campaign cash.
“Few politicians say, on or off the record, ‘I will exchange official act X for payment Y,’ ” the opinion says. “Similarly persons who conspire to rob banks or distribute drugs do not propose or sign contracts in the statutory language. ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean’ can amount to extortion … just as it can furnish the gist of a Monty Python sketch.”
Prosecutors could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court or could choose to retry Blagojevich on the dropped counts, though prosecutors often decline to retry a case if most of the counts are upheld. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to discuss the ruling, including prosecutors’ next moves.
The two-term governor proclaimed his innocence for years on talk shows, on NBC’s “The Apprentice” reality show and while impersonating Elvis — his idol — at a block party. Taking the stand at his decisive retrial in 2011, a sometimes-tearful Blagojevich said he was a flawed man but no criminal.
Jurors eventually convicted him of 18 counts; 11 dealt with charges that he tried to swap an appointment to the seat for campaign cash or a job, once musing about becoming ambassador to India.
Blagojevich was also convicted on other play-to-pay schemes. They include the attempted shakedown of the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a contribution to Blagojevich’s campaign.
The 14-year term was one of the longest for corruption in a state where four of the last seven governors have gone to prison.
After his arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, Blagojevich became the butt of jokes on late-night TV, including for his well-coiffed hair and his foul-mouthed rants on FBI wiretaps. The most notorious excerpt was one where he crows about the Senate seat, “I’ve got this thing and it’s f------ golden. And I’m just not giving it up for f------ nothing.”
Blagojevich began serving his sentence at a prison near Denver on March 15, 2012. Before the appeal, the estimated release date for the father of two school-aged daughters was 2024; he would be 67.