Joe: Blago (Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois governor now in prison) is back in the news. He wants to be released. Not that long ago, you felt his 14-year sentence was excessive. Similar to President Donald Trump, you felt Blago was treated unfairly. Trump called Blago’s secret recorded phone calls, during which Blago discussed schemes using his personal office for political benefit, not criminal but simply stupid. According to Trump, “many other politicians” say the same thing. Trump now states he is “thinking very seriously” about commuting the sentence of Blago who has served about half of his prison term. If you had the power to pardon Blago or commute his sentence would you let him out now?
Ken: Haven’t changed my mind. Former Gov. Blagojevich remains, in my opinion, more bungling burglar than smooth operator, and 14 years is a harsh punishment for stupidity. The federal prosecutor’s case was based largely on two charges of impropriety: an attempt to “sell” the Barack Obama Senate seat after Obama was elected to the White House and an effort to shake a substantial campaign contribution out of the Children’s Hospital CEO in return for a state grant of $8 million. In neither case did Blago close the deal. So, for bring a corrupt criminal doofus, he got big time. I am aware most current Illinois politicians and newspaper opinion writers are opposed to clemency for Blago. After all, he serves as an example to present and future Illinois politicians; he has taught them whatever device runs on electricity could be listening or watching, and if listening or watching, recording. Some discussions only should take place on a random park bench while a brass band parades by.
Joe: When you examine this case in total (two trials, sentencing hearings and appeals), it’s been a real learning tool for both law students and criminal law practitioners. Talking was the crime. Although, Blago never closed any deals such as selling Obama’s Senate seat, it wasn’t necessary to gain convictions. You don’t have to be a successful criminal to be a criminal. After his conviction, Blago made mistakes. Both at the original sentencing hearing and resentencing, he never admitted guilt for any of the crimes (17 of 20 counts) for which he was convicted. Rather, in appearing before Federal Judge Zagel for sentencing, he sought mercy, saying, “I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and words and what I thought I could do. I’m not blaming anybody.” Judge Zagel sentenced him to 14 years, which has been viewed by many as a firm, just punishment intended to send a loud message in a state that has been plagued with political corruption for decades. Blago then marched off to a minimum-security camp in Colorado, a converted motel, with fully carpeted rooms, bathrooms and tubs. Fast forward now seven years to 2018. Perhaps while soaking in a hot tub after one of his long runs, Blago experienced an eureka moment. “I’m in prison for practicing politics.” He wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal (published May 28, 2018) claiming precisely that. It can be read online. He states, “The rule of law is under assault in America.” Still refusing to take responsibility for his crimes or showing true remorse, he believes he was hounded unfairly by the FBI and Justice Department who abused their power by criminalizing ”the routine practices of politics and government.” Sound familiar? Blago is undeserving of clemency. As one who held a public office serving the people who were his victims, he’s learned nothing sitting in the slammer. Judge Zagel was right when he told Blago at his sentencing hearing, “Your personality may not be suitable for public service.”
Ken: Columnist Finley Peter Dunne in an 1895 newspaper created an often-quoted descriptor of Chicago politics. The full quote: “Sure, politics ain’t bean-bag. ‘Tis a man’s game, an’ women, childer, cripples an’ prohybitionists ‘d do well to keep out iv it.” By sullying the Obama Senate seat, Blago unthinkingly stepped on Obama’s toes and scuffed his going-to-the-White-House-shoes, but I doubt whether that resulted in any overt directives; just sayin’. Justice in Chicago can be capricious and subject to influence — Blago was tagged for 14 years; Jussie Smollett got multiple indictments dropped and walked. Coincidently, Blago developed a connection to Trump by competing on The Apprentice 2010 while under indictment, where he appeared to be affable and incompetent. And as things played out, many of the FBI high officials at the time of the Blago investigation and prosecution are among the FBI crew involved in the attempt to unseat President Trump with the all-for-naught Russian Collusion surveillance and investigation — — most of those high-ranking fibbies now ex-fibbies.
Joe: On May 31, 2018, three days after the WSJ published Blago’s letter, Trump told reporters he was considering commuting Blago’s sentence. Since then, Trump has stated, “He shouldn’t have been put in jail.” “And it was the same gang — the Comey gang and the — all those sleazebags — that did it.” Trump used the Blago case and Blago’s arguments of being hounded by the FBI and Justice Department in his own case involving Mueller. The sad part is Blago’s convictions on corruption, extortion and greed, which were reviewed by multiple appeals courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, where Blago’s Petition for Certiorari was denied, meant nothing to Trump. That is because he and Blago think alike. To say their personalities are of a type that might not be suitable for public service is arguably an understatement. If a federal judge cannot give a 14-year jail sentence to a public servant as deterrent for criminal acts of politicians, how do you propose to stop corruption with political and white-collar criminals? Because we are running out of space, perhaps we can save that question for another time.
Ken: It is unrealistic to think whether one insignificant rat is kept in his cage or let free is going to have the slightest deterrent effect on the way they’ve been doing politics in Illinois for more than a century. This is not the issue worth getting all righteous about. My opinion: Blago didn’t commit a violent crime; Blago’s already served hard time — loose him. Lastly, Trump did not have to argue his case; Mueller and his merry band failed to find evidence to support a charge of collusion or conspiracy after a 30-month, unlimited resources, investigation.