CHICAGO — The Rod Blagojevich who once challenged a prosecutor to face him like a man, the glad-handing politician who took to celebrity TV shows to profess his innocence, was nowhere to be found Wednesday as he was sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption.
Frowning and pulling nervously at his tie, the disgraced former governor seemed like another person as he stepped up to address the sentencing judge. Bluster once as conspicuous as his famously lavish head of dark hair was wiped out, a victim of his June convictions on charges that included attempting to sell President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.
In a low voice, the two-term Democrat apologized again and again, telling Judge James Zagel he had made “terrible mistakes.”
“I caused it all. I’m not blaming anybody,” Blagojevich said, trying with uncharacteristic humility to avert severe punishment. “I was the governor and I should have known better and I am just so incredibly sorry.”
It was not enough for Zagel, who gave the 54-year-old a sentence close to the 15 to 20 years prosecutors had sought.
“The abuse of the office of governor is more damaging than the abuse of any other office, except the president’s,” he said.
“Whatever good things you did for people as governor, and you did some, I am more concerned with the occasions when you wanted to use your powers … to do things that were only good for yourself,” Zagel said.
Blagojevich slumped forward in his chair — momentarily frozen as the judge pronounced the sentence. Moments later, his wife, Patti, fell into his arms; when he pulled back from their embrace, he brushed tears from her cheek.
“When it is the governor who goes bad,” Zagel said, “the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired.”
Illinois governors have gone bad with stunning frequency. Four of the last nine have been sentenced to prison, including Blagojevich’s predecessor, George Ryan, who remains behind bars.
Blagojevich, who received more than twice as much time as any of the other governors, was also more of a national spectacle — both because of the charges against him, and how he responded to them.
In the most notorious of the FBI wiretaps that sealed his fate, Blagojevich is heard crowing that his chance to name someone to Obama’s Senate seat was “f–ing golden” and he wouldn’t let it go “for f–ing nothing.” His lawyers claimed the comments were simply “musings,” but jurors and the judge agreed they were evidence of a crime.
The jury also found that Blagojevich demanded a $50,000 donation from the head of a children’s hospital in return for increased state support, and extorted $100,000 in donations from two horse racing tracks and a racing executive in exchange for quick approval of legislation the tracks wanted.
Blagojevich responded to his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest with defiance, appointing Roland Burris to the Senate job he was accused of trying to sell and proclaiming his innocence with a media blitz.
The boyish-looking defendant continued pursuing the spotlight after he was removed from office, writing a book, appearing in reality TV shows such as “Celebrity Apprentice” and even appearing in a TV ad in which he opens a briefcase overflowing not with money but with pistachios. “Rod Blagojevich does it innocently,” was the line.