Even as a corruption investigation swirled around then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich five years ago, Pat Quinn defended his two-time running mate as "a person who's honest and one of integrity."
On Wednesday, Gov. Quinn declared "justice was served" after a federal judge handed down a 14-year prison sentence to his predecessor.
"I think all of us who voted for him feel let down," said Quinn, who rose to governor after an impeached Blagojevich was removed in January 2009. "I was his running mate, and I think he let me down like he let down the people of Illinois. When you betray a trust, that's a serious crime, and I think the sentence magnifies how important it is to not ever have that happen again."
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said the state "cannot rely on a prison sentence to deter corruption" and called on lawmakers to enact stronger laws to prevent the pay-to-play politics that dominated Blagojevich's administration.
She called for more comprehensive ethics disclosures to more easily reveal conflicts of interest, and aides said she favors strengthening a recent law that imposed the state's first-ever limits for campaign contributions.
Quinn and Simon already had their crack at strengthening ethics laws as momentum on the issue built in the wake of Blagojevich's downfall. Simon served on a panel that suggested the state adopt stricter standards, but those reforms were watered down in 2009. Quinn signed the bill into law anyway, arguing it was better than nothing. Critics argue the law did little to cut back on the power wielded by legislative leaders.
Quinn conceded Wednesday that "more work needs to be done," but pointed to a number of reforms put in place following Blagojevich's downfall, including a limited ability for citizens to recall governors — a power he said should have been around years ago in order for voters to boot Blagojevich and Republican Gov. George Ryan from office.
Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who now holds the Senate seat Blagojevich was convicted of trying to trade for his own gain, said the judge's sentence "is a clear warning to all elected officials that public corruption of any form will not be tolerated."
Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who lost the 2006 governor's race to Blagojevich, said the state continues to feel the pain of his financial mismanagement.
"Rod Blagojevich ran as a reformer and proved to be worse than anything that came before him," said Topinka, who was defeated despite the indictment of Blagojevich fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko just weeks before the election. "His reckless and self-serving handling of state finances has put Illinois billions of dollars in the hole, and ensured that it will operate at a deficit for years to come."
Several Illinois politicians expressed concern for Blagojevich's family but said that the lengthy sentence was deserved.
"It may seem like an eternity to him, but in truth, the damage he has caused to our state will far outlast any prison sentence he will serve," Topinka said.
Twitter @moniquegarciaCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun