"He was corrupt when he took the oath of office. He was corrupt until the day he was arrested."
—Federal prosecutor Reid Schar at the sentencing of Rod Blagojevich, Dec. 7, 2011.
"My life is in ruins. … I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity."
—Blagojevich, pleading for mercy.
On Saturday, felonious former Gov. Rod Blagojevich turns 55. On Feb. 16, he surrenders to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Around the start of 2024, barring the unexpected, he will return to society after completing the minimum 85 percent of his 14-year sentence.
The defrocked politician once proud of his boyish looks will be 67 years old.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel knew the math Wednesday when he handed Blagojevich that sentence. The judge spoke precisely at high noon, but not only to the convict in front of him. Over the course of a two-day sentencing hearing, Zagel gave a tutorial that the Illinois political class — elected officials, public employees and their insider pals — should take profoundly to heart.
Zagel explained why Blagojevich's crimes were so destructive. And by sentencing him to more than twice the 61/2 years Blagojevich's predecessor, George Ryan, is serving, Zagel made corruption a more serious crime than it previously has been in Illinois. He essentially told every other judge who hears these cases that, to curb this crime, penalties need to rise. Giving Blagojevich 14 years is a stiff precedent on which future judges can, and should, sentence the next crooked Illinois pols.
Zagel's most important lesson also is Blagojevich's worst penalty: If citizens have placed their public trust in you, then you can do to your life and your loved ones what this criminal freely chose to do to his. Corruption doesn't just happen; people who may have fine attributes, impressive resumes and substantial accomplishments make it happen. Exemplary fathers and mothers, career professionals, officials who have done many good things for the people they serve — these otherwise upstanding folks, not just thieving mopes, drive the Illinois culture of political sleaze.
Often, Zagel said, these perps may think their many good deeds more than offset their crimes. Not so. Zagel's acknowledged that, yes, as governor Blagojevich had acted for the good of others: "Every governor, even our worst, helps someone. … Very few criminals are all bad. … I am more concerned with the occasions when you wanted to use your powers to do things that were only good for yourself."
That cold truth — your achievements don't ameliorate your sins, so don't even try that defense — undercuts a core tenet of the political class of Illinois. Just as Ryan's conviction in 2006 debunked the unwritten Illinois dictum that what may look like corruption is really "just politics."
Zagel offered other lessons to those who exploit public office for personal advantage:
• You say you weren't the organizer? Corruption was all around you? Is that so? Then let's see where the benefits flowed. Zagel more than once cited Blagojevich's own words and his demanding tone on FBI recordings as proof of the obvious: Blagojevich was interested in helping Blagojevich. The then-governor's aides and advisers didn't walk him along a criminal path, Zagel said. "He marched them."
• Your acts didn't really hurt anyone, or hurt Illinois? The harm in this case, Zagel said, isn't measured in the value of money or property. "The harm is the erosion of public trust in government." When a governor goes bad, he damages a system that relies on the willing participation of its citizens. "You," Zagel said, looking at Blagojevich, "did that damage."
• If you're caught, you'll be charming? Persuasive? You'll talk your way out of it? Probably not. Schemes emerge from conversations, and government intercepts of conversations are all but irrefutable evidence. And as Zagel noted, this defendant's efforts to influence the jury pool by proclaiming his innocence only hurt him. Same for his protestations that he hadn't meant all those recorded words, and that he was manipulated by others. As a rule, the truth will out.
• It can't happen to you but if it does, hey, public officials get light sentences? Maybe in the past, but not any more. Zagel spoke Tuesday in generalities about the need for tougher penalties to discourage corruption. And on Wednesday he handed 14 years to a man whose path had led from Northwestern University to Pepperdine Law to a job as a Cook County prosecutor to the Illinois General Assembly to the Congress to the governorship of Illinois.
Blagojevich is dead-right. His until now privileged life is in ruins. He has no one but himself to blame.
And as other judges realize that Zagel has blazed a new trail — that there is no going back to gentlemen's sentences for gentlemen who commit public corruption — more stiff sentences likely will put more lives in ruins.
Until now, serious prison time is a potential deterrent rarely imposed in Illinois. With the 101/2 years that U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve handed to political fixer Antoin "Tony" Rezko two weeks ago, and now the 14 years Zagel handed to Blagojevich, maybe the pols, the public officials and their pals will think twice.
About what? We hope they'll think about what the phrase "public service" truly means.
Failing that, we hope they'll think about the anguish — until 2024 — of the man, much like them, who used to be Gov. Rod Blagojevich.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun