, CHICAGO, Dec 8 – Ousted Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years in prison for trying to auction off President Barack Obama’s vacated US Senate seat and a host of other corruption charges.
The Democratic governor was arrested in the midst of what prosecutors called a “political corruption crime spree” just weeks after Obama’s historic November 2008 election.
Blagojevich was convicted of 17 corruption counts in June after his first trial resulted in a hung jury on all but one of the charges.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn, disfigured and not easily repaired,” federal judge James Zagel said in imposing the sentence.
“The harm here is not measured in the value of money or property… the harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”
The expletive-laden transcripts of Blagojevich’s secretly recorded conversations and his subsequent antics created fascinating political theater.
While Obama managed to emerge untainted, the scandal shone a spotlight on the state’s corruption-filled political scene and cast a shadow on his early days in office.
Five of the past nine Illinois governors have been indicted or arrested for fraud or bribery. Blagojevich’s predecessor, Republican George Ryan, is currently serving a six-and-a-half year jail term for fraud and racketeering.
Blagojevich — who must report to prison on February 16 and must also pay nearly $22,000 in fines — received the distinction of being handed the longest sentence of any Illinois governor.
Blagojevich’s lawyers had urged Zagel not to make an example of their client, noting that Blagojevich did not line his pockets like other recently convicted politicians, but instead was convicted of pushing for campaign donations and a plum job in exchange for political favors.
Blagojevich, 54, was also convicted of trying to shake down the head of a children’s hospital, a construction executive and a racetrack owner for campaign contributions, as well as trying to get the owner of the Chicago Tribune newspaper to fire editorial writers who criticized his leadership.
He appeared to be a chastened man Wednesday, tearfully apologizing for his “self-absorbed” and “immature” comments and for trying to fight the case in the media, even while insisting that he never meant to do anything wrong.
“I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and the things I did and I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody,” Blagojevich said before the sentence was handed down.
“I never set out to break the law. I never set out to cross lines.”
But Blagojevich’s prior unrepentant swagger and insistence that he was simply engaged in political horse-trading was held against him.
The circus began when the FBI released a transcript of a secret tape in which Blagojevich called his chance to appoint a new senator to replace Obama “f*****g golden,” and said “I’m not just gonna give it up for f*****g nothing.”
A few weeks later, Blagojevich defied his party by appointing attorney Roland Burris to fill Obama’s vacated US Senate seat, prompting a showdown in Washington as Democrats tried to block his entry to the venerable institution.
The bizarre show took another twist when Blagojevich skipped the beginning of his impeachment trial in January 2009 and instead flew to New York for a series of media appearances in which he slammed the “kangaroo court.”
He was soon ousted from office despite an impassioned plea to keep his job and spent the months before his first trial proclaiming his innocence on the US media circuit, including during a short-lived stint on the TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.”
The flamboyant politician and media phenomenon returned to the airwaves, pitching everything from his innocence to pistachios, after his first trial ended with a conviction on a charge of lying to federal agents and a jury deadlock on 23 other charges.
The case helped Republican Mark Kirk narrowly beat a Democratic challenger and Obama protege to win the seat in November.
Kirk released a statement praising prosecutors and saying Zagel’s sentence “is a clear warning to all elected officials that public corruption of any form will not be tolerated.”