Blago­je­vich spin­ning tales in first days home

Some crit­ics view web of half-truths as hypocrisy

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Stacy St. Clair and An­nie Sweeney

As dis­graced ex-Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich stood in front of TV cam­eras last week and de­clared him­self a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner fi­nally home from eight years of ex­ile, his for­mer run­ning mate watched in dis­be­lief.

For­mer Gov. Pat Quinn — the lieu­tenant gov­er­nor who be­came the state’s chief ex­ec­u­tive af­ter Blago­je­vich was im­peached and re­moved from of­fice in 2009 — had heard most of the rou­tine be­fore. The story of his im­mi­grant par­ents, the po­etry recita­tions and the his­tor­i­cal ref­er­ences have been part of Blago­je­vich’s reper­toire since his ear­li­est days in pol­i­tics.

But with Blago­je­vich fresh off his stint in fed­eral prison, this time was dif­fer­ent. What up­set Quinn most, he said, was the pro­nounced self-pity, the lack of con­tri­tion and, per­haps more than any­thing, the au­dac­ity to dis­cuss crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form.

Quinn in­her­ited a back­log of nearly 3,000 clemency pe­ti­tions when he took over from Blago­je­vich, who largely shirked his

re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­view re­quests for com­mu­ta­tions and par­dons. The sit­u­a­tion be­came so dire at one point, Cabrini Green Le­gal Aid sued Blago­je­vich to get him to act on their re­quests.

“It is ironic that some­one who didn’t care about those peo­ple wait­ing for an an­swer, or the fam­i­lies wait­ing for them at home, was the ben­e­fi­ciary of a com­mu­ta­tion,” Quinn said. “There was no re­morse. There was no con­tri­tion. What we saw was dis­grace­ful.”

In his wind­ing “home­com­ing” speech and var­i­ous me­dia in­ter­views since hav­ing his sen­tence com­muted Tues­day by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, Blago­je­vich has wo­ven a web of half-truths and, to crit­ics, hypocrisie­s around his newly found free­dom. He has pro­moted un­founded con­spir­acy the­o­ries, at­tacked his for­mer pros­e­cu­tors and down­played his own crim­i­nal be­hav­ior.

And as he has been since the mo­ment of his ar­rest, Blago­je­vich re­mains un­re­pen­tant. If any­thing, a lengthy in­car­cer­a­tion has only strength­ened his be­lief that he is the vic­tim of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and not the per­pe­tra­tor.

He also seems em­bold­ened by Trump’s bom­bas­tic style, which dras­ti­cally changed the po­lit­i­cal and cul­tural land­scape while Blago­je­vich was be­hind bars. That new re­al­ity al­lows for hurl­ing al­le­ga­tions re­gard­less of their ve­rac­ity, ex­co­ri­at­ing per­ceived op­po­nents in the me­dia and of­ten shout­ing down the truth.

Some are more qual­i­fied than oth­ers to see through the for­mer gov­er­nor’s ef­fort to re­write the his­tory books.

“It’s strange, be­cause if any­one knows about his guilt, it’s Rod Blago­je­vich,” said James Mat­sumoto, the jury fore­man at his first crim­i­nal trial. “He heard the ev­i­dence at two tri­als. He has to know what he did was crim­i­nal.”

‘A freed po­lit­i­cal pris­oner’

Blago­je­vich was first tried in 2010, with the jury con­vict­ing him on one count of ly­ing to the FBI and dead­lock­ing on the rest. At his re­trial in 2011, he was con­victed of sev­eral shake­downs and sen­tenced to 14 years in prison.

The pun­ish­ment was more than dou­ble what his pre­de­ces­sor, ex-Gov. Ge­orge Ryan, re­ceived af­ter his cor­rup­tion con­vic­tion in a li­censes-for-bribes scan­dal, prompt­ing many to ques­tion whether the judge acted too harshly. In Blago­je­vich’s eyes, his tragi­comic le­gal or­deal was more per­se­cu­tion than pros­e­cu­tion.

“I’m re­turn­ing home to­day from a long ex­ile a freed po­lit­i­cal pris­oner,” he told the me­dia Wed­nes­day from the stoop of his Chicago house. “I want to say again to the peo­ple of Illinois who twice elected me gov­er­nor: I didn’t let you down. I would have let you down if I gave in to this. But re­sis­tance to tyrants is obe­di­ence to God.”

Look­ing older and sig­nif­i­cantly grayer since his in­car­cer­a­tion, Blago­je­vich spent his first days of free­dom try­ing to re­store a tar­nished legacy. He showed no in­ter­est in a thought­ful de­bate about the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for his mis­deeds, but rather he ap­peared de­ter­mined to re-lit­i­gate his case.

Blago­je­vich’s ar­gu­ment be­gins with the in­cor­rect as­ser­tion that the same peo­ple who took him down have also tried to un­seat Trump. It’s an eas­ily dis­proved ac­cu­sa­tion that Trump also pushed when an­nounc­ing Blago­je­vich’s com­mu­ta­tion Tues­day morn­ing, and on Twit­ter the fol­low­ing day.

“He served 8 years in prison, with many re­main­ing. He paid a big price. An­other Comey and gang deal!” the pres­i­dent tweeted Wed­nes­day.

For­mer FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey was U.S. deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral when the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Blago­je­vich’s ad­min­is­tra­tion be­gan, but he moved to the pri­vate sec­tor in 2005 and played no role in Blago­je­vich’s ar­rest in 2008. Blago­je­vich had been in prison for more than a year when Comey as­sumed the FBI’s top post.

Blago­je­vich’s pros­e­cu­tion was over­seen by Pa­trick Fitzger­ald, then U.S. at­tor­ney for the North­ern Dis­trict of Illinois. Fitzger­ald did not have any role in the Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tion, though he has been rep­re­sent­ing Comey, a long­time friend, since Trump fired him in May 2017.

It is true that Robert Mueller was the FBI di­rec­tor at the time of Blago­je­vich’s ar­rest by agents in the FBI’s Chicago of­fice. But then-U.S. At­tor­ney Gen­eral Michael Mukasey, a Ge­orge W. Bush ap­pointee and fre­quent Trump de­fender, made the de­ci­sion to tap the gov­er­nor’s phones.

The facts, how­ever, haven’t stopped Blago­je­vich from push­ing the idea that he and Trump were tar­geted by mu­tual en­e­mies.

“This is the larger fight that is be­fore all of us as Amer­i­cans,” Blago­je­vich said on FOX News Wed­nes­day. “Some of these same peo­ple again have tried to do at the Ma­jor League-level to a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent what they were able suc­cess­fully to do to a Demo­cratic gov­er­nor. And they are threat­en­ing to take away from all of us our rights to choose our own lead­ers through free and fair elec­tions.”

The as­ser­tion de­fies both time and logic, said for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Jef­frey Cramer, who worked un­der Fitzger­ald.

“Ev­ery­one is try­ing to morph those facts,” Cramer said. “These pros­e­cu­tors who in­ves­ti­gated and con­victed Blago­je­vich have been out of the (U.S. De­part­ment of Jus­tice) for about 10 years. And the pres­i­dent is mak­ing some sort of twisted con­nect-the-dots be­tween Jim Comey and Rod Blago­je­vich? When you have to go through these le­gal gym­nas­tics, maybe the best an­swer is the most sim­ple one, which is Rod Blago­je­vich is the poster child for pub­lic cor­rup­tion in Illinois. And that is a pretty high bar.”

Ran­dall Sam­born, a lawyer and for­mer long­time spokesman for the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice, in­clud­ing dur­ing the Blago­je­vich con­vic­tions, dis­missed any sug­ges­tion that Fitzger­ald or his pros­e­cu­tors played any role in the Trump in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

And while Mueller was lead­ing the FBI dur­ing the time of the Blago­je­vich in­ves­ti­ga­tion and pros­e­cu­tion, the prac­tice at the time was to al­low lo­cal teams of fed­eral agents and pros­e­cu­tors much more con­trol — un­like what is tran­spir­ing to­day in Washington, Sam­born added.

“Lo­cal FBI agents and pros­e­cu­tors had some de­gree of in­de­pen­dent au­ton­omy in con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions and pros­e­cu­tions, un­like the more re­cent reach­ing across the tran­som by (De­part­ment of Jus­tice) of­fi­cials that we’ve seen in re­cent weeks,” Sam­born said.

Claim­ing le­gal mis­treat­ment

The for­mer gov­er­nor com­plains that the “un­con­trolled” pros­e­cu­tion team im­prop­erly ap­plied fed­eral law to rail­road him, an­other claim that does not with­stand scru­tiny. The 7th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals called the ev­i­dence against Blago­je­vich “over­whelm­ing” and up­held the con­vic­tion, while the U.S. Supreme Court twice re­fused to hear his ar­gu­ments.

The Illinois Se­nate voted unan­i­mously to re­move him from of­fice for abus­ing his power. The Illinois House also had wide­spread bi­par­ti­san sup­port for his im­peach­ment, with only Blago­je­vich’s sis­ter-in-law, then-Rep. Deb Mell, D-Chicago, vot­ing against it.

“For Rod Blago­je­vich to say some­how he is in­no­cent is ab­surd,” Cramer said. “And sev­eral courts and a jury thought it was ab­surd.”

As Blago­je­vich con­tin­ues to dis­par­age fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors, some worry about the dam­age his claims could cause. With sev­eral al­der­men and state law­mak­ers cur­rently un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion or in­dict­ment for al­legedly abus­ing their po­si­tions, the U.S. at­tor­ney’s of­fice is once again prov­ing it­self to be one of the most re­li­able weapons in the fight against pub­lic cor­rup­tion, for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Renato Mar­i­otti said.

“The only con­stant in Illinois pol­i­tics is that we rely upon fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors to fight cor­rup­tion,” said Mar­i­otti, who also worked un­der Fitzger­ald. “You don’t want that pub­lic trust un­der­mined, es­pe­cially at this mo­ment in time.”

Blago­je­vich was con­victed in 2011 on sev­eral cor­rup­tion charges, in­clud­ing that he brazenly tried to sell for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s old U.S. Se­nate seat in 2008. Trump has said he be­lieved the 40th Illinois gov­er­nor — the fourth to go to prison since the 1970s — was treated un­fairly when U.S. Judge James Zagel sent him away for 14 years.

The com­mu­ta­tion thrilled Blago­je­vich’s wife and two daugh­ters, but it drew strong re­bukes from politi­cians in both par­ties. Illinois’ five-mem­ber Repub­li­can con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, Chicago Mayor Lori Light­foot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker de­rided Trump’s de­ci­sion to re­lease him roughly four years early, say­ing it sent the wrong mes­sage about the con­se­quences of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion and was un­fair to his vic­tims.

Hos­pi­tal shake­down

Both Blago­je­vich and Trump shrugged off his ac­tions as nor­mal po­lit­i­cal talk, gloss­ing over the fact he was con­victed of try­ing to shake down the for­mer Chil­dren’s Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal for a $25,000 cam­paign do­na­tion in ex­change for more state fund­ing for pe­di­atric spe­cial­ists. The for­mer gov­er­nor did not men­tion that spe­cific al­le­ga­tion dur­ing his pub­lic re­marks Wed­nes­day, though he did tout his ef­forts to pro­vide more af­ford­able health care for chil­dren in Illinois.

On wire­taps played dur­ing his crim­i­nal trial, Blago­je­vich men­tioned a Med­i­caid re­im­burse­ment rate in­crease worth up to $10 mil­lion and his de­sire to hit up hos­pi­tal CEO Pa­trick Ma­goon for con­tri­bu­tions in al­most the same breath. The rate hike would have gone to pay doc­tors who were back­logged in treat­ing chil­dren for asthma, di­a­betes, epilepsy and rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

Chil­dren’s Memo­rial, which has since changed its name to Lurie Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Chicago, said in 2008 that no one at the hos­pi­tal par­tic­i­pated in the scheme. They also is­sued a state­ment ex­press­ing dis­ap­point­ment that money to care for “Illinois’ need­i­est chil­dren has been tied to an al­leged pay-for-play scheme.”

When asked about the scheme on FOX News, Blago­je­vich quickly re­torted: “I ac­tu­ally sent that hos­pi­tal $8 mil­lion.”

The hos­pi­tal re­ceived the state fund­ing af­ter Blago­je­vich was ar­rested.

The for­mer gov­er­nor ap­peared to be par­rot­ing ar­gu­ments he raised in his post-trial ap­peals — none of which suc­ceeded to per­suade any court that he didn’t try to ex­tort Ma­goon.

“The hos­pi­tal was pretty clear they were be­ing shaken down,” Cramer said. “You have to laugh at the nerve. In the an­nals of pub­lic cor­rup­tion, who shakes down a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal?”

Blago­je­vich had been sched­uled to be re­leased in March 2024. In­stead, he finds him­self back in Chicago and re­quired to do com­mu­nity ser­vice un­til he finds a job. He has not said where he in­tends to seek em­ploy­ment, but he has ex­pressed an in­ter­est in help­ing those who are wrongly in­car­cer­ated or serv­ing un­fair sen­tences.

“(In­jus­tices) that not only de­stroyed their lives and steal from them their fu­tures, but hurt their chil­dren and fam­i­lies,” Blago­je­vich lamented.

Blago­je­vich means it when he talks about re­form­ing the sys­tem, a spokesman said in an email Fri­day.

“For the last eight years, Gov. Blago­je­vich has seen first­hand how bro­ken and racists the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is — es­pe­cially to­ward African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos, who have been so un­fairly treated,” wrote Mark Var­gas. “There are a lot of peo­ple that are de­serv­ing of clemency, and he cer­tainly wishes now that he had done more about it as gov­er­nor. His­tor­i­cally, clemency is granted at the end of one’s term in of­fice, and Gov. Blago­je­vich never got that chance to act.”

Dur­ing his ten­ure, Blago­je­vich ruled on 1,024 re­quests, grant­ing clemency to 72 in­di­vid­u­als.

The sug­ges­tion raised some eye­brows among those fa­mil­iar with Blago­je­vich’s lack­lus­ter record on crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form, in­clud­ing his for­mer lieu­tenant gov­er­nor.

When Quinn as­sumed of­fice in 2009, the 2,838-pe­ti­tion back­log cre­ated un­der Blago­je­vich’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was the largest in the na­tion. Some of the un­touched re­quests dated back to Jan­uary 2003, Blago­je­vich’s first month in of­fice.

Given the law at the time, some pe­ti­tion­ers were ask­ing for par­dons that would make it eas­ier to have low-level crimes such as mis­de­meanor bat­tery and felony re­tail theft erased from their records. Every year that their pleas went un­heard made life more dif­fi­cult, said Cyn­thia Cor­nelius, di­rec­tor of pro­grams at Cabrini Green Le­gal Aid.

“It means your fu­ture is on hold,” Cor­nelius said. “Peo­ple were seek­ing clemency in or­der to se­cure hous­ing, em­ploy­ment, school­ing or cer­ti­fi­ca­tions. The years went by, and they were still wait­ing.”

The group sued Blago­je­vich in 2006 for dodg­ing his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, but he tri­umphed on ap­peal. Cor­nelius called his com­mu­ta­tion a “trav­esty,” say­ing there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of pris­on­ers more de­serv­ing of an early re­lease.

Still, she hopes Blago­je­vich keeps his prom­ise to help them.

“I’m will­ing to give any­one the ben­e­fit of the doubt,” she said. “I hold out hope that be­cause of what he ex­pe­ri­enced, he’ll have em­pa­thy for peo­ple still serv­ing.”

Quinn ad­dressed 4,268 clemency cases, ap­prov­ing 1,777 of them dur­ing his six years in of­fice, ac­cord­ing to the Illinois Pris­oner Re­view Board. He worked through the back­log dur­ing four-hour re­view ses­sions each week­end and said he al­ways looked for con­tri­tion or an apol­ogy from the pe­ti­tioner.

He saw nei­ther from Blago­je­vich last week. It makes him doubt whether the politi­cian for­merly known as Fed­eral In­mate 40892-424 could usher in needed re­forms.

“If he re­ally cares about crim­i­nal jus­tice re­form,” Quinn said, “he has a lot of ex­plain­ing to do — start­ing to­day.”

“The pres­i­dent is mak­ing some sort of twisted con­nect-the-dots be­tween Jim Comey and Rod Blago­je­vich? When you have to go through these le­gal gym­nas­tics, maybe the best an­swer is the most sim­ple one, which is Rod Blago­je­vich is the poster child for pub­lic cor­rup­tion in Illinois. And that is a pretty high bar.” — Jef­frey Cramer, for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor

TER­RENCE AN­TO­NIO JAMES/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

For­mer Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich, cen­ter, speaks at his Chicago home.

JOSE OSORIO/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Dis­graced for­mer Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich is sur­rounded by me­dia and well-wish­ers out­side his home on Wed­nes­day, a day af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump com­muted his sen­tence.

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