Although Rod Blagojevich is in Colorado serving a 14-year prison sentence, his presence was felt more than 900 miles away Wednesday as his top aide was sentenced to just 10 days behind bars for helping the former Illinois governor try to sell President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.
At the Chicago sentencing hearing, Blagojevich's last chief of staff John Harris received leniency from the same judge who imposed the stiff sentence on the corrupt former governor. U.S. District Judge James Zagel noted that Harris had been forced to cope with a boss who bristled at staff who dared tell him `no' and whose manic management style and constant telephone calls at all hours of the day wore subordinates down.
In a rare display of empathy, the grizzled judge went so far as to speculate about what he would have done confronted by a superior like Blagojevich.
"I can't say that in your position, I wouldn't have done the same thing," he told Harris.
His voice cracking at times, Harris, now 50, also read a brief statement, apologizing to the people of Illinois, to his family and friends, saying he should have done more to stop Blagojevich from pursuing illegal schemes.
"In seeking to maintain (Blagojevich's) confidence, I lost my way," he said.
Defense attorney Terry Ekl said Harris was "loyal to a fault" in his relationship to the then-governor. He said the married father of three sons has sought to put his shattered life together, including by becoming an apprentice on high power lines.
Harris faced a maximum five-year sentence for conspiracy to commit bribery, which he pleaded guilty to in a 2010 agreement with prosecutors.
The judge's sympathetic tone, as well as the praise a prosecutor heaped on Harris for his more than three years of close cooperation with investigators, all suggested Zagel might agree to let Harris off with probation.
But sounding almost apologetic, Zagel in the end told Harris he couldn't let him completely off the hook.
"The offence is so serious and so crucial that I cannot impose upon you a sentence that does not include custody," Zagel told him.
On a nearby spectators' bench, Harris' wife tensed up at those words, clearly fearing a lengthier term. But as Zagel announced the 10-day sentence, she and her husband looked visibly relieved. After the hearing ended, Harris beamed as he hugged family and friends.
During her 15-minute statement at the hearing, prosecutor Carrie Hamilton didn't have a single critical word for Harris.
She told Zagel Harris was "the most important" witness at Blagojevich's corruption trials. And unlike Blagojevich, who fought the more numerous charges against him until he recently reported to prison, Hamilton said Harris "owned up" to his misdeeds within days of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest.
She also highlighted what she said was Blagojevich's extreme inconsideration for his staff. She described how on one call captured on FBI wiretaps, Harris tells Blagojevich he was hanging Christmas tree lights with his kids and wanted to get back to it.
"Blagojevich did not care what else was going on" and kept Harris on the phone for more than an hour, Hamilton said.
Harris fumbled with a rubber band in his hands as Hamilton spoke, biting his lip and tearing up when she talked about his relationship with his sons. After the hearing, Harris walked over to government's courtroom table and shook hands with prosecutors.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/mtarm.