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.
“His behavior and conduct once he was charged was almost a template for what you don’t want a defendant to do,” said Joel Levin, a former federal prosecutor. “… He did everything possible to alienate the prosecutors and the judge and, ultimately, it came back to hurt him.”
It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery and attempted extortion.
On Wednesday, Blagojevich licked his lips nervously as he stepped up to address the judge — mouthing the words, “I love you,” to his wife as he passed her on a spectators’ bench. Leaning into a hefty oak podium, tightly gripping its sides, the often fast-talking Blagojevich spoke slowly, sometimes pausing and searching for the right word.
“My life is ruined,” he told Zagel. Accentuating each of the next seven words, he added, “I have nobody to blame but myself.”
He offered more than half a dozen apologies to, among others, his former colleagues and to his former constituents across Illinois. But he stopped, seemingly to gather his composure, when he said that he also owed an apology to his family — including his two daughters, 15-year-old Amy and Annie, 8.
“I have ruined their innocence,” he said quietly.
Sitting just a few feet to Blagojevich’s left were the three federal prosecutors who devoted more than three years to his case. In his remarks, Blagojevich also apologized to them for itching to spar with them verbally, sometimes through the media.
Alluding to his teenage years as an amateur boxer, Blagojevich told Zagel, “I’m accustomed to fighting … it was childish and not productive.”
On his way out of the courthouse, Blagojevich cited author Rudyard Kipling and said it was a time to be strong, to fight through adversity and be strong for his children. He said he and wife were heading home to speak to their daughters, and then left without answering any questions.
Before sentencing, Blagojevich’s attorneys had proposed a term of just a few years, saying he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin. They presented heartfelt appeals from Blagojevich’s family, including letters from his wife and one of his two daughters that pleaded for mercy.
But the judge made it clear early in the hearing that he believed Blagojevich had lied on the witness stand when he tried to explain his scheming for the Senate seat, and that he did not believe defense suggestions that the former governor was duped by his advisers.
“The governor was not marched along this criminal path by his staff,” Zagel said. “He marched them.”
Going into the sentencing, many legal experts said the governor was likely to get around 10 years. A former Blagojevich fundraiser, Tony Rezko, recently was sentenced to 10 1/2 years, minus time served.
Prosecutors have said Blagojevich misused the power of his office “from the very moment he became governor.” He was initially elected in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up Illinois politics in the midst of federal investigations that led to the prosecution and conviction of Ryan.
Blagojevich, who turns 55 Saturday, was ordered to begin serving his sentence on Feb. 16. In white-collar cases, convicted felons are usually given at least a few weeks to report to prison while federal authorities select a suitable facility. Blagojevich is expected to appeal his conviction, but it is unlikely to affect when he reports to prison.
Most of the prisons where Blagojevich could end up are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Ryan is serving his own sentence. In prison, Blagojevich will largely be cut off from the outside world. Visits by family are strictly limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job — possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors — at just 12 cents an hour.
According to federal rules, felons must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence a judge imposes — meaning that Blagojevich wouldn’t be eligible for early release until he serves nearly 12 years.
Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time. Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: “No. I don’t let myself go there.”
In the same interview, Blagojevich also explained that the family dog Skittles was bought after his arrest in to help his school-age daughters cope with the stress of his legal troubles. He said he joked with them that, “If the worst happens (and I go to prison), you can get another dog and call him ‘Daddy.’”
• Associated Press writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report.
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