Trump com­mutes Blago­je­vich’s sen­tence

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - FRONT PAGE - By Michael Tarm

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Tues­day com­muted the 14-year prison sen­tence of for­mer Illi­nois Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich, who was con­victed in a widerang­ing po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion case just months af­ter he ap­peared on Trump’s re­al­ity TV show. The pres­i­dent called the sen­tence “ridicu­lous.”

Blago­je­vich, who hails from a state with a long his­tory of payto-play schemes, was ex­pected to walk out of prison later in the day, ac­cord­ing to a per­son close to him, who spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause that per­son had not seen any signed pa­per­work. The 63-year-old Demo­crat was found guilty in 2011 of crimes that in­cluded seek­ing to sell an ap­point­ment to Barack Obama’s old Se­nate seat and try­ing to shake down a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal.

Af­ter ex­haust­ing his last ap­peal in 2018, Blago­je­vich seemed des­tined to re­main be­hind bars un­til his pro­jected 2024 re­lease date. His wife, Patti, went on a me­dia blitz in 2018 to en­cour­age Trump to step in, prais­ing the pres­i­dent and liken­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion of her hus­band to spe­cial prose­cu­tor Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian med­dling in the 2016 elec­tion — a probe Trump long char­ac­ter­ized as a “witch hunt.”

Trump also granted cle­mency to fi­nancier Michael Milken, who pleaded guilty to vi­o­lat­ing U.S. se­cu­ri­ties laws, and par­doned for­mer NYPD com­mis­sioner Bernie Kerik, who served just over three years for tax fraud and ly­ing to

the White House while be­ing in­ter­viewed to be Home­land Se­cu­rity sec­re­tary. Trump con­firmed his ac­tions to re­porters be­fore de­part­ing for Cal­i­for­nia.

Blago­je­vich’s con­vic­tion was no­table, even in a state where four of the last 10 gover­nors have gone to prison for cor­rup­tion. Judge James Zagel — who sen­tenced Blago­je­vich to the long­est prison term yet for an Illi­nois politi­cian — said when a gov­er­nor “goes bad, the fab­ric of Illi­nois is torn and dis­fig­ured.”

Blago­je­vich be­came known for his foul-mouthed rants on wire­taps re­leased af­ter his Dec. 9, 2008, ar­rest while still gov­er­nor. On the most no­to­ri­ous record­ing, he gushed about prof­it­ing by nam­ing some­one to the seat Obama va­cated to be­come pres­i­dent: “I’ve got this thing and it’s golden. And I’m just not giv­ing it up for noth­ing.”

When Trump pub­licly broached the idea in May 2018 of in­ter­ven­ing to free Blago­je­vich, he down­played the for­mer gov­er­nor’s crimes. He said Blago­je­vich was con­victed for “be­ing stupid, say­ing things that ev­ery other politi­cian, you know, that many other politi­cians say.” He said Blago­je­vich’s sen­tence was too harsh.

Pros­e­cu­tors have balked at the no­tion long pro­moted by Blago­je­vich that he en­gaged in com­mon po­lit­i­cal horse-trad­ing and was a vic­tim of an overzeal­ous U.S. at­tor­ney, Pa­trick Fitzger­ald. Af­ter Blago­je­vich’s ar­rest, Fitzger­ald said the gov­er­nor had gone on “a po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion crime spree” that would make Abra­ham Lin­coln turn over in his grave.

Mueller — a sub­ject of Trump’s de­ri­sion — was FBI di­rec­tor dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Blago­je­vich. Fitzger­ald is now a pri­vate at­tor­ney for an­other for­mer FBI di­rec­tor, James Comey, whom Trump dis­missed from the agency in May 2017.

Trump also ex­pressed some sym­pa­thy for Blago­je­vich when he ap­peared on “Celebrity Ap­pren­tice” in 2010 be­fore his first cor­rup­tion trial started. When Trump “fired” Blago­je­vich as a con­tes­tant, he praised him for how he was fight­ing his crim­i­nal case, telling him, “You have a hell of a lot of guts.”

He later poll-tested the mat­ter, ask­ing for a show of hands of those who sup­ported cle­mency at an Oc­to­ber 2019 fundraiser at his Chicago ho­tel. Most of the 200 to 300 at­ten­dees raised their hands, The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported, cit­ing sev­eral peo­ple at the event.

On the same day, Trump told Chicago tele­vi­sion sta­tion WLS that — de­spite bring­ing up the pos­si­bil­ity of free­ing Blago­je­vich in Au­gust and then ap­pear­ing to back away from the idea — Blago­je­vich should not aban­don hope of an early re­lease.

“No, he should not at all give up hope, at all,” Trump said. “We are look­ing at it.”

At his sec­ond trial in 2011, Blago­je­vich tes­ti­fied, de­scrib­ing him­self as a flawed dreamer grounded in his par­ents’ work­ing­class

val­ues. He sought to hu­man­ize him­self to coun­ter­act the seem­ingly greedy Blago­je­vich heard on wire­tap record­ings played in court. He said the hours of FBI record­ings were the ram­blings of a politi­cian who liked to think out loud.

But ju­rors ac­cepted ev­i­dence that Blago­je­vich de­manded a $50,000 do­na­tion from the head of a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal in re­turn for in­creased state sup­port and ex­torted $100,000 in dona­tions from two horse rac­ing tracks and a rac­ing ex­ec­u­tive in ex­change for quick

ap­proval of leg­is­la­tion the tracks wanted.

He was orig­i­nally con­victed on 18 counts, in­clud­ing ly­ing to the FBI, try­ing to trade an ap­point­ment to the Obama seat for con­tri­bu­tions and at­tempt­ing to ex­tort a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal ex­ec­u­tive. The 7th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in Chicago in 2015 tossed five of the con­vic­tions, in­clud­ing ones in which he of­fered to ap­point some­one to a high-pay­ing job in the Se­nate.

The ap­peals court or­dered the trial judge to re­sen­tence Blago­je­vich, but sug­gested it would be ap­pro­pri­ate to hand him the same sen­tence, given the grav­ity of the crimes. Blago­je­vich ap­peared via live video from prison dur­ing the 2016 re­sen­tenc­ing and asked for le­niency. The judge gave him the same 14-year term, say­ing it was be­low fed­eral guide­lines when he im­posed it the first time.

Blago­je­vich had once as­pired to run for pres­i­dent him­self but en­tered the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion En­gle­wood in sub­ur­ban Den­ver in 2012, dis­graced and broke. Court doc­u­ments filed by his lawyers in 2016 por­trayed Blago­je­vich — known as brash in his days as gov­er­nor — as hum­ble and self­ef­fac­ing, as well as an in­sight­ful life coach and lec­turer on ev­ery­thing from the Civil War to Richard Nixon. Blago­je­vich, an Elvis Pres­ley fan, also formed a prison band called “The Jail­house Rock­ers.”

Fa­mously fas­tid­i­ous about his dark hair as gov­er­nor, it turned white be­hind bars be­cause hair dyes are banned in prison.

M. SPENCER GREEN — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

For­mer Illi­nois Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich speaks to the me­dia out­side his home in Chicago as his wife, Patti, wipes away tears a day be­fore re­port­ing to prison af­ter his con­vic­tion on cor­rup­tion charges.

EVAN VUCCI — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump talks to the me­dia be­fore he boards Air Force One for a trip to Los Angeles to at­tend a cam­paign fundraiser, Tues­day at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.

BRIAN CAS­SELLA — CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

For­mer Illi­nois Gov. Rod Blago­je­vich ex­er­cises out­side the Fed­eral Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion-En­gle­wood near Lit­tle­ton, Colo.

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