With his back to the courtroom, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich stood before Judge James Zagel and whispered meekly as hundreds of eyes followed the sound of his voice. Appearing thinner than in his last appearance on the 25th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, he was without his old swagger and bravado. His wife Patti, sat on the bench in the arms of her brother, who sat to her left, and her sister, Illinois representative Deb Mell, on her right. Her sunken eyes were dark with rings of worry. "I'm here convicted of crimes. The jury decided I was guilty," said Blagojevich, who turns 55 on Saturday. "I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it, and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it."
The courtroom was overwhelmed with quiet as Blagojevich continued. "I've made my share of mistakes," the disgraced politician went on. "I want to apologize to the people of Illinois and the people of this courthouse...I never set out to break law."
He apologized to his wife and children. He said he was sorry for involving his older brother, Robert Blagojevich, his former campaign chief, who was tried as a co-conspirator in the first trial before charges were dropped. He said he was sorry too for attempting to try the case publicly and for equating it to a boxing match. "I'm accustomed to fighting back and it's inappropriate," Blagojevich said. "It was childish."
Much like that of a beaten-down pugilist, his voice cracked at times as he continued with his public act of contrition. "I am responsible," he said. "I caused it all. I'm not blaming anybody because I am the governor and I should have known better."
The belated apology comes after two trials in which Blagojevich was convicted of 18 corruption charges, including attempting to sell the vacant U.S. senate seat of Barack Obama after he was elected president, shakedowns for campaign cash, attempted extortion and lying to federal agents. "My life is ruined. My political career is over. I can't be a lawyer. We can't live in our home... I have nobody to blame but myself and my stupidity," he said. "My children have had to suffer," he added. "I've ruined their innocence. Their father is now a convicted felon and they have go out in the world. It's not like their name is Smith. They can't hide. I have nobody to blame but myself."
His eyes red with emotion, he somberly walked over to kiss his wife on her head. After taking a 20 minute break, Judge James Zagel then acknowledged and accepted Blagojevich's apology, adding that being a public figure "where the world is watching" likely makes it harder to come forward with such an offering.
Earlier in the day, assistant U.S. attorney Reid Schar stressed the need to set a stiff penalty since "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 the political process, they're being heard." In the end, although Zagel and the federal prosecutors could have given Blagojevich 30 years to life, based on the sentencing guidelines, both judge and prosecutors agreed that a lesser sentence was in order for the crimes committed.
Based on Blagojevich's public apology, Zagel diminished the original sentencing range but chastised Blagojevich, a former lawyer and prosecutor, for saying during the trial that he didn't know his actions were illegal. "The jury didn't believe you and neither did I," Zagel told Blagojevich, admonishing him for also saying tape recorded phone calls were just musings and not talking with a purpose even though it included arranged meetings and repeated phone calls.
Zagel then doled out Blagojevich's sentence, framed in terms of months, equal to 14 years, which under federal sentencing rules, means Blagojevich will have to serve 85% of his sentence, or just under 12 years, in prison at a minimum. He will also need to pay a $20,000 fine. At the sound of the sentence, Blagojevich slumped. His wife looked distraught but refrained from crying until after the court was cleared, tears streaming down her face in the arms of her husband. It is nearly three years from the day Blagojevich was first arrested on Dec. 9, 2008 at his home in Chicago's northside Ravenswood neighborhood.
This conviction makes Blagojevich the fourth Illinois governor in the past nine to have been convicted of a crime. Blagojevich's predecessor, former Illinois governor George Ryan, is currently serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence for the illegal sale of licenses, contracts and leases. Blagojevich ran on the campaign promise to be unlike his corrupt predecessor. "This just further erodes the public trust in government," Zagel told Blagoejvich, who will have to report to jail on Feb. 16. "When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and not quickly or easily repaired."