Harsh Prison Sentence Ends Blagojevich Circus

Why the surprisingly heavy 14-year prison sentence for former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich? It all came down to his brazen behavior, from trying to manipulate jurors to appearing on ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ says Michelle Cottle.

12.08.11 9:45 AM ET

Ouch. Fourteen years in lockup. That’s what former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his magnificent hairdo drew Wednesday for his June conviction on 17 counts of being a political sleazeball.

While the sentence could have been much worse—federal guidelines put the range at 30 to life—many were surprised at the harshness of U.S. District Judge James Zagel’s ruling.

Zagel is widely assumed to be sending a message of deterrence to other pols who might be toying with the idea of following in Blago’s footsteps by, say, extorting money from a children’s hospital or trying to auction off a U.S. Senate seat. This is, after all, Illinois, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a corrupt pol. Blagojevich’s defense team, in fact, took the liberty of ticking off the names of several area pols either convicted of or under investigation for misbehavior that, as they saw it, was much worse than their client’s. Most notable among these is Blago’s immediate gubernatorial predecessor, Republican George Ryan.

Then again, Ryan is serving only six and a half years for his felonies. So why the tough love for Blagojevich, who, it must be said, never even managed to get that Senate seat sold?

In part, say observers, the Democratic former governor is getting spanked for being such a flamboyant jackass both in the commission of his crimes and throughout his subsequent legal odyssey.

“I would say one reason in just absolute terms that this was such a lengthy sentence is that the governor was so brazen in his conduct,” says Solomon Wisenberg, co-chair of the White Collar Crime group at Barnes & Thornburg, a Washington, D.C., law firm.

Indeed, there was nothing subtle about Blago’s shakedowns and attempted shakedowns. As he so eloquently noted in plotting what to do with Obama’s vacated Senate seat: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f--king golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for f--king nothing.”

Admittedly, facts, not likability, are what are supposed to determine whether a defendant is convicted in this country. When it comes to sentencing, however, pretty much everyone recognizes that attitude matters. And right up until Blago’s presentencing court appearance Tuesday, there was not one minute of his three-year legal spectacle in which the governor missed an opportunity to behave in the most reprehensible fashion imaginable.

We’re talking about a man who responded to his arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, by launching a massive media campaign to trash the entire state government. The legislature was out to get him, he raged with awe-inspiring sanctimony.

On Jan. 29, 2009, Illinois legislators voted not merely to oust the governor but also to ban him from ever holding state office again. This was soon followed by Blago’s April 2 indictment on numerous federal charges. In the wake of such a blow, a normal politician might decide it was time to get serious, time to hunker down and focus on his defense. Blago, by contrast, began laboring to parlay his political infamy into reality-show celebrity, aided when necessary by his equally appalling wife. In 2009, Patti Blagojevich popped up eating tarantulas on the reality show I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here—but only after Rod himself had been prevented from participating because Zagel refused to clear him for travel to Costa Rica for filming. At the time, Zagel suggested to the governor that he might not be taking his legal situation seriously enough.

With that warning in mind, what did Blago do next? Got himself a spot on the 2010 season of Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice. He was, blessedly, fired in Episode Four.

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All the while, the ex-governor strutted from interview to interview, public appearance to public appearance, trumpeting his innocence, painting himself as a modern-day martyr, and generally looking to corrupt the legal process by trying his case in the court of public opinion.

And all that grandiose talk, talk, talk. From quoting Rudyard Kipling’s “If” in a press conference in the wake of his arrest to boasting in a 2010 sitdown with Esquire that he was “blacker than Obama,” Blago just couldn’t stop confirming his well-earned reputation as a self-aggrandizing rodeo clown.

This is not to say that Blago didn’t take an active role in his courtroom defense. He made quite an impression on the prosecution by shamelessly sucking up to individual jurors: waxing rhapsodic about Boston because one juror hailed from there, mentioning his love of libraries in an effort to woo a librarian, and making sure the juror who owned a Greek deli knew of Blago’s habit of stopping by a Greek restaurant to get coffee on his way to study at the library. All in all, manipulation more impressive in its nakedness than in its sophistication—or, ultimately, its effectiveness.

“It’s foolish to think that did not affect the judge,” says Wisenberg. “It had to affect the judge.”

“I think it had some impact,” agrees Chicago defense attorney Darryl Goldberg. “Certainly the prosecutor said, ‘Look at this person: he went on TV and did his best to manipulate the court of public opinion. He did his best to ingratiate himself with the jurors.’”

While Zagel is a judge who takes pains to consider all the competing factors in such cases, says Goldberg, “you can’t sweep all that under the rug.”

Reports from Wednesday’s sentencing hearing make much of how, for the first time ever, Blago seemed sad, defeated, even contrite. He apologized to everyone he could think of and begged the court for mercy on behalf of his poor children.

Goldberg thinks the last-minute acceptance of responsibility probably did the governor some good. “Every judge I’ve ever talked to appreciates someone who is remorseful, who is not trying to shift the blame. That should count for something.”

Something—but not enough to keep Blagojevich from spending the next decade or so making license plates. After a three-year run of Cirque du Blago, Zagel could only be moved so much. “When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn, disfigured, and not easily repaired,” he lectured. “The harm here is not measured in the value of money and property. The harm is the erosion of the public trust in government.”

In the end, who knows whether Blago’s hard fall will prevent other pols from succumbing to the lure of corruption.

But, God willing, maybe it will at least keep those who get caught from showing up at Donald Trump’s casting calls.