Blago, 14 years? Are you kidding? George Ryan indirectly contributed to the death of six children, and he got 6-1/2 years. With Blago, no money changed hands (granted, not for lack of trying) and nobody died. 14 years in prison – serving about 12 – is insanity. Many politicians in Illinois who are bemoaning this “tragic” and “unfortunate” political train wreck now are probably keeping their fingers crossed that no tapes surface on them any time soon.
But Judge Zagel’s sentence for Blago, handed down today, of 14 years in prison was, as reported by guardian.co.uk, “one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a history of crooked politics.” And in a vacuum – in a locale where corruption isn’t the order of the day – Blago’s crimes look pretty damn bad. A governor, caught on tape rambling out loud about the golden opportunity that awaits him if he can grab a cash payoff in return for his appointment of the payee to a much-coveted Senate seat. But this is Illinois, and you can’t take that crime in a vacuum – because in the context of this state and the City of Chicago, what Blago did was more or less business as usual and, in fact, doesn’t even rise to the level of the craftiest crooked Illinois and Chicago politics. Pathetic, maybe; true, absolutely.
With this historically high sentence, the logical conclusion is that either Blago’s crimes rose to the level of the worst in Illinois political history, or he’s being made an example of. And it appears to be the latter. As U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald noted, post-sentencing: “If there is a public official out there who is thinking about committing a crime, they ought to be thinking twice . . . If a 14-year sentence doesn’t stop someone, I wouldn’t want to be sitting in front of a judge after that.”
When you look at Blago’s crimes, when you grade on the Illinois curve, Blago’s crimes don’t rise to the level of other crimes which carried far lighter sentences. But maybe Blago wasn’t judged only for his crimes – maybe he was also judged on the benchmark of attitude. He was arrogant, insisted on thumbing his nose at prosecutors and even his own attorneys when, early on, he did a round of media talk shows and appeared on Celebrity Apprentice, loudly proclaiming his innocence and challenging his foes to nail him. The prosecutors must have been rubbing their hands with glee.
But, with former Governor Rod Blagojevich’s conviction on 17 counts of corruption – including trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat – the count is now four out of the last 9 governors in Illinois who did, or are doing, a stint making license plates, or whatever it is convicts do in federal penitentiaries. Maybe working on their golf games; who knows?
But what about the other three convicted Illinois governors, and their sentences?
- Former Illinois Governor George Ryan was convicted of taking bribes that led to the death of six children in the license-for-money scandal – repeat, six kids dead – and he received a sentence of 6-1/2 years in prison.
- Former Governor Otto Kerner, Jr., was convicted of accepting bribes and got three years; his downfall came about when one of his bribers deducted the value of the bribe on her federal income tax returns, believing that “bribery was an ordinary and necessary business expense in Illinois.”
- Dan Walker, following his term as Illinois governor, was convicted of financial improprieties around a savings and loan; he got 7 years and did 18 months.
In a vacuum, Blago is the worst of the worst; but wrapped in the context of Illinois’ rich history of corruption and back-door deals, he’s barely a blip on the high crimes and misdemeanors radar.
Blago’s childrens’ lives have been irretrievably altered, his family is for all intents and purposes wrecked, he’ll never practice law again, he’s going down in flames. Yes, Former Governor Rod Blagojevich is guilty as sin, his conviction was just and he should do time – but not more time than your average violent criminal in Illinois.
Said Judge Zagel at the sentencing: ”The fabric of Illinois is torn, disfigured and not easily repaired. You did that damage.” The fabric of Illinois was in tatters long before Blago appeared on the scene, long before he was caught on tape, long before he got fired from Celebrity Apprentice. The fabric of Illinois is more like a web.
Blago is a low-risk repeat criminal. His crime was non-violent. I get it: Illinois wants to sweep its streets clean of corruption, and here comes Blago, hanging out there with his goofy antics and his cocky demeanor and his obvious guilt. Blago was following a long pattern of pay-to-play in Illinois, the cost of doing political business in this state, and it cost him 14 years of his life.
Should have been half that.