CHICAGO (AP) — A judge on Thursday sentenced one of the most unsavory figures to emerge from the investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to just 5½ years in prison, heeding praise for the former political insider as one of the most important cooperating witnesses in the state's sordid history of corruption.
Moments before the judge announced the sentence for money laundering and fraud, a somber Stuart Levine stood ramrod straight at a courtroom podium, apologizing for a laundry list of scams in which he used influence on state boards to line his pockets with millions of dollars.
"I wish to express my deep regret to the people of Illinois," said the admitted former drug addict and serial swindler, now 66. He added that he has "profound remorse and deep regret for all that I have done."
Otherwise composed, his voice momentarily cracked as he also apologized to his children for the pain he caused them.
Later, Judge Amy St. Eve acknowledged Levine played central roles in bringing several public figures to justice. But she said he also cheated business partners, hospitals, charities and others — once even swindling a dead friend's estate and the man's deaf daughter out of $2 million.
His schemes included using a seat on the Illinois Health Facilities Planning board to shake down hospitals for kickbacks. And he ran similar swindles at the $40 billion state teachers' pension fund.
"You are certainly one of the most corrupt individuals this district has ever seen," the judge told him. "It is clear you would stop at nothing for your greedy ends."
Levine, who must report to prison on Sept. 27, faced a maximum life sentence. In the end, though, the judge chose to impose the term prosecutors recommended in a 2006 plea deal.
In his remarks, prosecutor Chris Niewoehner praised Levine for trial testimony that helped convict former Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko and longtime Illinois powerbroker William Cellini.
Levine didn't testify at Blagojevich's trials. But Niewoehner said he deserved substantial credit for evidence that led to the conviction of Blagojevich, who is serving a 14-year term for corruption.
"Mr. Levine was a historic cooperator," Niewoehner said, adding that those he helped convict deserved to be in "a hall of fame of ... corruption."
He told the judge that a show of leniency for Levine also would encourage others who become ensnared in corruption investigations in the future to cooperate.
"There will come a day when another Stuart Levine is confronted by the FBI," he said.
It may be hard for many to imagine another man quite as unique as Levine.
His testimony at the Rezko and Cellini trial about his decadent past was as disturbing as it was captivating. He told jurors about snorting multiple lines of a powdered mix of crystal methamphetamine and ketamine in the early 2000s — sometimes at all-night binge parties he flew to by private jet.
When defense attorneys portrayed Levine as a habitual liar, he barely challenged them. At Blagojevich's first trial, attorney Sam Adam Jr. said his client had been tainted by mere association with Levine, telling jurors, "The king of sleaze knighted Stuart Levine ... 'Sir Stuart Levine.'"
Defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback on Thursday described to the judge how Levine sank into a deep depression following his 2005 arrest. He said Levine even contemplated suicide.
He went from living in a $7 million lakeside mansion, Steinbeck told the judge, to "a one-flat efficiency with peeling paint" and from "having Armani suits to having old jeans to wear."
Friends shunned him. His wife divorced him. At one point, there was a threat on Levine's life.
"There was nowhere for him to go where the (emotional) pain wasn't excruciating," he said.
Levine, who most recently has worked as a salesman in a suburban shopping mall, appeared pleased by the outcome of Thursday's sentencing hearing, smiling and shaking prosecutors' hands afterward.
He looked glum a little later as he stood silently by Steinback as the attorney answered reporters' questions in the courthouse lobby.
Asked if Levine was a changed man after all he's gone through, Steinback insisted he was.
"He is a changed man for the better," he said.
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm .