Disgraced Blagojevich to have final word before prison

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 14, 2012 8:53 AM
Disgraced Blagojevich to have final word before prison

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, never one to mince words during his political career, will have a final moment in the spotlight on Wednesday when he makes a statement before reporting to a federal prison to serve a 14-year sentence for corruption.

Blagojevich said through a publicist that he will speak on Wednesday afternoon outside the home where FBI agents showed up on the morning of December 9, 2008, and arrested him.

At the time, a surprised Blagojevich thought it was a joke.

But it was not a joke. Federal agents had spent months wire-tapping Blagojevich's telephones and prosecutors accused him of trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, in return for political favors and donations.

Three years later, after two sensational trials, U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel sentenced the two-term governor and father of two daughters to 14 years in prison for corruption.

Assigned prisoner number 40892-424, Blagojevich, 55, is scheduled to turn himself in on Thursday and will be assigned a cell in a Colorado prison.

The imprisonment of Blagojevich, a Democrat, means the last two Illinois governors are both behind bars, and he becomes the fourth governor in the state to be convicted of crimes since the 1960s. His Republican predecessor George Ryan is also in prison.

Dozens more underlings have been convicted in federal corruption investigations. One of Blagojevich's aides, Christopher Kelly, committed suicide in 2009 before going to prison, saying that prosecutors had pressed him to cooperate in the case against his former boss.

Northwestern University law professor Ronald Allen has called the corrupt practices in Illinois "a hideous bog" that never seemed to dry up.

When Blagojevich and a top aide were charged, local U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said authorities had halted a potential crime spree that would have made Illinois native Abraham Lincoln "roll over in his grave."

Through two trials Blagojevich refused to apologize for his actions, even launching a publicity campaign on national talk shows to declare his innocence. Only at his sentencing in December, 2011 did he finally apologize, and Judge Zagel said it had come too late.

At the end of his first trial in August 2009, a single juror held out and refused to convict Blagojevich on the bulk of the counts, and a mistrial was declared on all but one count of lying to investigators.

At his second trial, with his campaign fund exhausted and his eloquent defense lawyer Sam Adam, Jr., declining to continue on the case, Blagojevich was found guilty of 17 of 20 counts by the jury of 11 women and one man.

They acquitted him of a single bribery count and deadlocked on two other counts, one related to a school grant sought by then-U.S. Representative Rahm Emanuel, later Obama's chief of staff and now Chicago's mayor.

Initially, the case against Blagojevich threatened to taint the nascent Obama administration, since the governor was charged with seeking an ambassadorship or cabinet post in exchange for naming Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat. But Emanuel testified Blagojevich was offered nothing and no one from the administration was charged.

Blagojevich and Obama also shared a friendship with Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a Chicago businessman and political fund-raiser who was convicted of bribery related to his unofficial role filling state jobs.

Rezko did not testify at either of Blagojevich's trials, but the corrupt practices revealed at his trial further stigmatized the state's political establishment, where Obama made his start.

The first Democrat elected Illinois governor in 30 years, Blagojevich eventually alienated Illinois lawmakers, passing out largesse while the state's finances suffered.

His popularity sank to unprecedented lows during his second term, and Blagojevich was heard on the FBI tape-recordings profanely pushing aides to trade the Senate seat for a well-paid position for him because he despised being governor.

At one point on the tapes Blagojevich cursed Obama for taking away his own chance at higher office, showing the now-disgraced Blagojevich once had loftier aspirations.

(Editing by Greg McCune)