Ex-Gov. Blagojevich released from prison after Trump pardon
Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich arrives to Denver International Airport on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020 in Denver. Blagojevich walked out of prison after President Donald Trump cut short the 14-year prison sentence handed to the former Illinois governor for political corruption. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune via AP)
Michael Tarm, The Associated Press
Published Tuesday, February 18, 2020 2:29PM EST
Last Updated Wednesday, February 19, 2020 12:33AM EST
CHICAGO - Rod Blagojevich walked out of prison Tuesday after President Donald Trump cut short the 14-year prison sentence handed to the former Illinois governor for political corruption.
The Republican president said the punishment imposed on the Chicago Democrat and one-time contestant on Trump's reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” was excessive.
“So he'll be able to go back home with his family,” Trump told reporters in Washington. “That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others.”
The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday night posted a photo of thesilver-haired Blagojevich at Denver International Airport, where he later boarded a plane for Chicago.Blagojevich was famously fastidious about his dark hair as governor, but it went all white because hair dyes are banned in prison.
Promising he will have more to say in a Wednesday news conference, Blagojevich told WGN-TV he appreciated the president's action.
“I'm profoundly grateful to President Trump and it's a profound and everlasting gratitude,” Blagojevich said. “He didn't have to do this, he's a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor. I'll have a lot more to say tomorrow.”
Blagojevich wouldn't say what plans he had for the future, however he did talk a bit about his time in prison.
“I've learned a lot about the criminal justice system, how unfair it can be, how unjust it is to people of colour,” he said. “I've drawn closer to God. There is divine intervention in all of this.”
Blagojevich said he heard about his commutation when other inmates told him they saw it on the news,” he said, adding that he “had no inkling it was coming.”
The former governor told ABC-TV Chicago that his future plans are to “turn evil into good.”
“I'm going to fight against the corrupt criminal justice system that all too often persecutes and prosecutes people who did nothing wrong, who over-sentences people, show no mercy, and who are in positions who have no accountability,” Blagojevich said. “They can do whatever they want. They can put you into prison for things that aren't crimes.”
Blagojevich, 63, hails from a state with a long history of pay-to-play schemes. He was convicted 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.
Trump had said repeatedly in recent years that he was considering taking executive action in Blagojevich's case, only to back away from the idea.
One of Blagojevich's lawyers said she refused to believe it at first when word of her client's possible release began to spread, fearing that the president might not follow through.
“When it became obvious it was real, I got tears in my eyes,” said Lauren Kaesberg. “It was overwhelming.”
Others in Illinois, including the governor, said setting Blagojevich free was a mistake.
Trump “has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time,” Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a written statement.
Many Republicans agreed.
“In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety,” said the the chairman of the Illinois GOP, Tim Schneider.
Trump made clear that he saw similarities between efforts to investigate his own conduct and those who took down Blagojevich.
“It was a prosecution by the same people - Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group,” Trump said. He was referring to Patrick Fitzgerald, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blagojevich and now represents former FBI Director James Comey, whom Trump fired from the agency in May 2017.
Trump also granted clemency to financier Michael Milken, who served two years in prison in the early 1990s after pleading guilty to violating U.S. securities laws, and pardoned former New York Police 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.
The Illinois House in January 2009 voted 114-1 to impeach Blagojevich, and the state Senate voted unanimously to remove him, making him the first Illinois governor in history to be removed by lawmakers. He entered prison in March 2012.
Blagojevich's 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 probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election - a probe Trump long characterized as a “witch hunt.”
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.”
After his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest while still governor, Blagojevich became known for his foul-mouthed rants on wiretaps. 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 f------ golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing.”
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. 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.
A joint statement from Fitzgerald and the lead prosecutors at Blagojevich's trial, none of whom work in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago anymore, stopped short of criticizing Trump's decision. But they highlighted the convictions, including for trying to shake down the children's hospital, saying, “Mr. Blagojevich remains a felon.”
Mueller - a subject of Trump's derision - was FBI director during the investigation into Blagojevich. Fitzgerald is now a private attorney for Comey, whom Trump dismissed from the agency in May 2017.
Trump 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.”
Blagojevich's first trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, except for a single conviction, for lying to the FBI.
At his second trial in 2011, Blagojevich testified, describing himself as a flawed dreamer grounded in his parents' working-class values. He sought to humanize himself to counteract the seemingly greedy governor 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.
He was convicted on 18 counts. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago in 2015 tossed out 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.
“I've made a whole bunch of mistakes but I didn't break any laws,” Blagojevich said in Denver before boarding his Chicago-bound commercial flight Tuesday night. “I crossed no lines. And the things I talked about doing were legal and this was routine politics and the ones who did it are the ones who broke the laws and the ones who frankly should meet and face some accountability.”