Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich sentenced to 14 years in prison
Wed Dec 7 2011
Photograph: Andrew Nawrocki
We must not be the great judge of character we like to think we are, because we elected him governor of Illinois. Twice!
Rod Blagojevich was once a Cook County State's Attorney and you'd think he should know the law. As of today, he is the fourth Illinois governor in the last four decades to head to the big house. In June, the man who was often absentee as governor was found guilty of 17 of the 20 charges in a retrial for charges stemming from his attempt to sell the empty Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, extort money for a children's hospital and race track and lying to federal agents. His predecessor went to jail for six years for the crime of selling driver's licenses. Driver's licenses. Blago was orchestrating the auction of a Senate seat. There's a vast difference in the severity of those crimes in my estimation.
Newscasters and commentators on WGN today compared Blago to a Don Quixote character, and there's something to that. All along, Blago has maintained his innocence, embracing a role of some kind of persecuted truth-telling, man of the people who felt righteous in his fight against insurmountable odds. He was often more delusional, not lawyerly. Blago seems to really believe there was nothing wrong with his shakedowns. After all, he never pocketed money directly from his shenanigans. What could be illegal about them?
Today, Blagojevich spoke for 19 minutes and said he was "incredibly sorry" and appealed on the grounds that he has kids and "never set out to break the law." The apology was too late in the judge's eyes. A few minutes ago, Judge Zagel delivered a sentence that will amount to 14 years in prison for Blago, 85 percent of which he will have to serve, beginning in February.
Zagel's sentence came in below the minimum suggested by the prosecutor (15–20), but is stiff enough that it appears to say something to Illinois politicians about the sanctity of the office. None of Blago's schemes ever came to fruition, of course. So Blago is being punished in a large part not for actions but for what he thought the office was all about, distributing power as he saw fit. Now, the vestiges of once standard machine politics (which historians generally agree were about consolidating power in the hands of formerly powerless ethnic groups, not getting rich) no longer wash with modern ideas about government, especially in the current climate of low public confidence in elected officials. The judge reminded us that Blago committed these crimes while serving in a high office—and his conviction was a sign and signal to peers of a cultural shift in what this state considered business as usual. Whether it will stick or not, we won't know for years. So today may have been a bad day for one man and his family and the end of a shameful episode in Illinois politics but, as a warning shot for Illinois politicians and a sign of things to come, you could say it was a very good day.