Johnston-Yurgine: Should Blagojevich go or stay?
Ken: We see daily the power of the federal prosecutor is the ace of trumps, thereby verifying the old expression, supposedly coined by a federal judge in 1985, prosecutors now have so much influence on grand juries they could get an indictment for a ham sandwich. We used the expression in a 2011 column about Illinois ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In 2008, while the FBI was recording his calls, Blago crowed about what a golden opportunity he was given to award a U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder — for sure stupid but no more venal and greedy than many Illinois career politicians including some other past governors. The upshot was a grand jury indictment, conviction and sentence of 14 years. So now Blago has served a shade more than six years, and we hear President Trump is considering commuting the sentence. What do you think — punished enough already, or keep him in the cage for another eight years?
Joe: Blago’s criminal indictment had issues of wire fraud, extortion and criminal conspiracy. There were hundreds of hours of secretly recorded phone calls during which Blago talked and talked of schemes to use his political office for personal benefit. Yet, there was no action in the sense that if you tried to “follow the money,” no actual sale of Obama’s seat occurred. No money changed hands. For this reason along with the length of Blago’s sentence, Trump believes Blago was treated unfairly. He calls Blago’s statements not criminal but simply stupid. According to Trump, “many other politicians” say the same thing. From your comments, it sounds as though you agree with him, and Blago has been punished enough.
Ken: Blago is not an unknown to Trump — Blago appeared on Trump’s TV show “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009-10 after his conviction but before the start of his sentence. I watched several of the shows. Blago appeared to be affable but guileless and devoid of leadership skills — a poor fit for a successful career as governor. After a few episodes he became the target of the fateful finger and the message, “Rod, you’re fired.” The legacy in Illinois politics is aggressive “fundraising” and rough and tumble campaigns. Smear tactics are the norm. Finley Peter Dunne, a Chicago Southside Irishman and Chicago newspaper columnist in the early 20th century, coined the aphorism “politics ain’t beanbag.”
While Blago’s wiretapped calls were judged criminal, openly soliciting a quid pro quo, basically selling a U.S. Senate seat, he collected no cash, no money. He was hammered with a severe punishment for dumb talk. Fourteen years was excessive, in my opinion.
Joe: David Bernstein wrote an interesting piece about Blago in the Chicago magazine. Blago, at the moment, is housed in a minimum-security camp in Colorado, which costs taxpayers about $50,000 per inmate per year. It’s a converted motel with about 50 rooms, each room sleeping five inmates. The rooms are fully carpeted with bathrooms and tubs, which Blago soaks in after a workout and long runs. His roommates include Socks, Sharkey, Smelly and Boo. Blago is the Guv. Everyone has nicknames. Security and freedom is so loose inmates late at night occasionally venture off to Walmart to buy cigarettes. For emotional fortitude, he has found religion. His current lawyer said Blago is a “different man,” no longer “arrogant” and “angry.” That might be true, but he still never has taken responsibility for his crimes or shown true remorse. So, why leniency? The talk, talk, talk that got him in trouble in the first place, according to 12 jurors, was, in fact, the crime. In law school, you learn from the get go — you don’t have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal. As you note, the fact Blago got no money and didn’t successfully sell Obama’s seat did not make his attempts to do so less criminal. Trump doesn’t seem to understand this. On one wiretap Blago told his advisers, “That seat is a f------valuable thing — you don’t just give it away for nothing.” Then, there was other evidence of shakedowns. Bribes, greed, political dealmaking for funds. What kind of government do we want when politicians solicit money with the intent of being influenced in their official actions?
Ken: Other than separation from his family, it sounds as though the governor is not experiencing much deprivation. Do you think the motel has maid service? From the sound of all those roomies’ nicknames, I might think he’s doing a stint with a bunch of ex-FBI agents from New York City. During Blago’s term as governor, he came up with one stupid idea after another, most involving large amounts of money. To some extent, these gimmicks were paid for by deferring money earmarked for pension plans for state employees. Thankfully, many of his proposals were killed by the Legislature that held him in low esteem. Three things: He is an unlikely recidivist. If he were to be released seven years early it would save U.S. taxpayers $350,000. And do you really think a long sentence for Blago is any serious deterrent to corruption for future Illinois politicians? Despite the examples of the incarceration of previous miscreants, four of the past six governors have served time in prison. I am pretty sure if it was not for the fact it was Obama’s Senate seat, there would have been no wiretap and no investigation in 2008. That’s not to say the dumb schmuck wouldn’t have met his comeuppance sooner or later.
Joe: After his initial trial, Blago appealed the conviction. He had some success. Several of the charges were overturned. This gave him an excellent shot at getting his 14-year sentence reduced. But Blago and his lawyers blew it. At a resentencing hearing in 2016, instead of admitting his crimes and maybe even sweetening the pot by confessing even more about things that have yet to see the light of day, he groveled, saying only he exercised bad judgment. Federal Judge James Zagel was unmoved and not impressed. He let the original sentence stand. Thereafter, the U.S. Supreme Court denied Blago’s request for a hearing. This leaves Blago finished. He’s dead meat, kaput and probably spiritually depleted. Six more years with Sharkey, Smelly and the crew no doubt will torture his psych. Well, at least that was the case until Trump’s announcement. Tell me. What was the point of that announcement? Was it to give Blago hope and assurance he soon would be released, or did Trump do it to make Blago sweat for one to six years, waiting and waiting for word from the White House? Blago is similar to Vladimir or Estragon in the play “Waiting for Godot,” who never shows up. You be the judge.