Disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was found guilty of 17 of 20 corruption counts against him, the majority for attempting to sell newly elected President Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. After leaving the federal courthouse in downtown Chicago, Blagojevich said “Patti and I are obviously very disappointed. I frankly am stunned.” The verdict is a vindication for the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who on the day of Blagojevich’s arrest in 2008 accused him of leading a “political corruption crime spree.”
Key to the convictions were FBI wiretaps of the former governor’s obscenity-laden phone conversations in which he attempted to horse trade to get the best possible quid pro quo for himself by appointing someone to the newly vacant Senate seat. In January of 2009, he was impeached by the Illinois House of Representatives and convicted by the Illinois State Senate. He was replaced by Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. With the conviction, Blagojevich joins three former Illinois governors convicted of fraud and corruption felonies since 1973, most recently his immediate predecessor, George Ryan. A status hearing on Blagojevich’s sentencing is scheduled to take place August 1.
Before the jury handed down the guilty verdicts, Blagojevich’s defense team laid the groundwork for a probable appeal. They filed several motions for mistrial that accused U.S. District Judge James Zagel of being biased in favor of the prosecution. Zagel denied all the motions. The loquacious Blagojevich, who spent seven days on the witness stand, insisted that rather than trying to sell President Obama’s Senate seat, he was merely engaged in political gamesmanship. Blagojevich told aides to ask the incoming Obama administration for either a Cabinet position, an ambassadorship or another high-paying position for him in exchange for naming Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to the Senate. Rahm Emanuel, formerly White House Chief of Staff and now Mayor of Chicago, testified that the incoming Obama administration did not offer Blagojevich any of his requests. Jarrett withdrew from consideration and Blagojevich appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the seat. Republican Mark Kirk subsequently won the seat in last fall’s mid-term election.
Writing in the Chicago Tribune, columnist John Kass – never a fan of Blagojevich – says that “At least he’d finally stopped acting. Dead Meat didn’t have to play a part anymore. There was nobody to charm, nobody to convince. All he had to do was sit there and take it. And I wonder if Dead Meat had time then to consider the arc of his life as the perfect Chicago political cautionary tale: The desperate kid who wanted to be liked, the boy who married the ward boss’s daughter, the kid who ingratiated his way into the 5th Congressional District, and who, with the help of patronage armies of knuckle draggers, was finally elected governor as a self-professed reformer. It all began to fall apart for him around Christmas of 2004, when Blagojevich and his father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Richard Mell, 33rd, had a very public falling out over an in-law’s role in a Will County landfill. It got ugly, then it got uglier, and when it became public, drawing the attention of the FBI, Blagojevich was becoming Dead Meat.”
James Warren on the Chicago News Cooperative website takes a somewhat different view. “Many were lured by Blagojevich’s charm, retail political skills and the nerve of someone whose life accomplishments were scant — as his premeditatedly self-deprecating testimony reminded the jury as subtly as a Times Square Jumbotron. And why not? He’d long exploited a self-portrayal of Imperfect Everyman, eschewing aides who told him to cut the talk of flunking the bar exam and other failures. He thought it humanized him and it explains his reflexive turns to the jury nearly every time he’d cite another life’s comeuppance, with his humor, vanity, pettiness, lassitude and occasional stupidity all on view. For sure, when his 2006 re-election campaign rolled around, there was an unsavory aroma and ample criticism, including from the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune. But naysayers cried out with Don Quixote futility due to his prodigious fundraising and a feeble Republican Party’s hack of an opponent. ‘Pay-to-play’ was the moniker for the culture he seemed to embody, with one key fundraiser indicted for alleged shakedowns and another soon to plead guilty. But Blagojevich assured all that he was a victim and the Sun-Times, for one, chose ‘to give him the benefit of the doubt and endorse him.”
Jury members answered questions after the verdict was handed down. They said the trial’s most surprising moment was when prosecutor Reid Schar asked the former governor a confrontational first question. ”Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct? Schar asked”. “That scared us all to death,” said Juror #103. ”We were so nervous after that. The trial up until then had not been very dramatic.” The forewoman, Juror #146, said the group knew “that there’s a lot of bargaining that goes on behind the scenes. We do that in our everyday lives. But I think in this instance, when it’s someone representing the people, it crosses the line. I think it sends a message,” she said.
Several disgraced politicians say that Blagojevich is not ready to spend time in prison. Betty Loren-Maltese, formerly Cicero village president who spent seven years in federal prison on a corruption conviction said “Most people have a fixed opinion of politicians. A lot of prisoners feel (politicians) might even be responsible for them being in prison. I don’t think it’ll be easy for him, but it’ll definitely change his attitude and make him realize he’s not the king.”
Scott Fawell, a former aide to Governor George Ryan (himself imprisoned on corruption charges) who spent 4 ½ years in a federal prison camp, had a different attitude.“Don’t complain, don’t be bitter,” he said. ”You’ll wake up and still be in the same place.”