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 on 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. His bluster, once as conspicuous as his famously lavish head of dark hair, wiped out since his June convictions on charges that included attempting to sell US President Barack Obama’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 years 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.
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 “fucking golden” and he wouldn’t let it go “for fucking 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 US$50,000 donation from the head of a children’s hospital in return for increased state support, and extorted US$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.
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.
“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. However, 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.