Blagojevich Could Get 20-Year Term for Trying to Sell Obama Senate Seat
By Andrew Harris – Dec 6, 2011 8:21 AM ET
Ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, convicted of political corruption charges including the attempted sale of President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat, faces sentencing by a federal judge.
Prosecutors have asked U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel to send the twice-elected Democrat to prison for 15 to 20 years. A hearing is set to start at 10 a.m. today in the Chicago courthouse where a jury found Blagojevich guilty of 17 counts in June at his second trial. Zagel, in a hearing on Dec. 2, told attorneys for both sides that the sentencing was likely to last more than one day.
Blagojevich, 54, led the fifth-most populous American state from January 2003 until his impeachment and removal from office in January 2009. He was arrested a month earlier for what Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald then called “a political corruption crime spree.”
“He’s going to receive a sentence that will take the oxygen out of the courtroom when it’s announced,” Steven A. Miller, a former federal prosecutor who is now a white-collar defense attorney, said in a phone interview last week. He predicted a 14-year term.
Prosecutors have argued that only a substantial punishment can deter potential future wrongdoers in a state where four of the most recent nine governors have been convicted for crimes committed before, during or after they held the office.
Calling their own client “a tragic figure,” defense lawyers said in a Dec. 1 court filing that the prison term should be no longer than 51 months, and argued for still less.
Blagojevich was indicted on 24 criminal counts in 2009. A jury in 2010 deadlocked on 23 of 24 charges, convicting him only of lying to federal agents.
Prosecutors dropped three counts before the retrial that ended with a new jury finding him guilty on 17 charges — including all 11 relating to the senate seat allegations — deadlocking on two counts and acquitting him on one.
They found the ex-governor guilty of 10 wire fraud counts, two attempted extortion counts and two extortion conspiracy counts, each punishable by as long as 20 years in prison. He was also convicted of solicitation of bribery, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, and two bribery conspiracy counts, which carry top sentences of five years.
Governor George Ryan, a Republican who was succeeded by Blagojevich, received a 6 1/2-year sentence after being found guilty of trading political favors for gifts, trips and cash in 2006.
Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a former fundraiser for Blagojevich and for Obama, received a 10 1/2-year sentence from a different Chicago federal judge on Nov. 22 for his role in a scheme to take kickbacks from firms receiving investment business from the state teachers’ pension system and from firms that could profit from the awarding of hospital construction certificates.
Prosecutors cited those cases in a Nov. 30 court submission urging Zagel to “deter current and future public officials from engaging in Blagojevich-like criminal activity.”
“Blagojevich was the sitting governor of Illinois when he committed his crimes,” they said. “As the chief executive of the state, Blagojevich was in a special position of responsibility to the public. His abuse of office is particularly grave given the faith put in him by the citizens of Illinois.”
Miller, a partner in the Chicago office of Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith LLP, agreed.
“He ran as a reform candidate for governor,” said Miller, who served for 18 years as a federal prosecutor in Chicago, four of them leading a division in charge of prosecuting public corruption, before entering private practice in 1997.
“The hypocrisy is enormous,” he said.
Miller said the history of Illinois public corruption cases hasn’t abated criminal activity.
“There is a frustration in the courts,” he said. “It never seems to end.” Ryan’s sentence, he said, was probably too light and shouldn’t be used as benchmark for punishing Blagojevich.
James Montana, another former federal prosecutor now in private practice as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer, also said Ryan’s sentence isn’t a good guide for Blagojevich’s punishment. He said Blagojevich’s crimes were worse.
“His abuse of the office and the trust was persistent and extensive,” said Montana, who is a partner at Chicago-based Vedder Price PC.
Still, Montana said, the 15 to 20 years sought by prosecutors is too harsh. He predicted a 12-year term for Blagojevich.
“Rezko got 10 and Rezko was not the public official,” the attorney said. “Something above 10 years but below 15 years ought to satisfy anyone’s sense of justice.”
The case is U.S. v. Blagojevich, 08cr888, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
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