CHICAGO >> Rod Blagojevich, the ousted Illinois governor whose three-year battle against criminal charges became a national spectacle, was sentenced to 14 years in prison Wednesday, one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a history of crooked politics.
Among his 18 convictions is the explosive charge that he tried to leverage his power to appoint someone to President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat in exchange for campaign cash or land a high-paying job.
Judge James Zagel gave Blagojevich some credit for taking responsibility for his actions, but said that didn’t mitigate his crimes. The judge also said Blagojevich did good things for people as governor, but was more concerned about using his powers for himself. The former governor admitted his crimes and apologized in court earlier in the day.
"When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired," Zagel said.
As the judge announced the sentence, which includes a $20,000 fine, Blagojevich hunched forward and his face appeared frozen. Minutes later, his wife, Patti Blagojevich, stood up and fell into her husband’s arms. He pulled back to brush tears off her cheek and then rubbed her shoulders.
On his way out of the courthouse, Blagojevich said it was a time to be strong, to fight through adversity and be strong for his children. He said he and wife were heading home to speak to their daughters, and then left without answering any questions.
But during the nearly 19 minutes that Blagojevich addressed Zagel, his children and what he has done to their lives dominated his plea for mercy.
Because of his crimes, "I have jeopardized my ability to protect my children," he told the judge. "My children have had to suffer. I’ve ruined their innocence."
The twice-elected Democrat received by far the harshest sentence among the four Illinois governors sent to prison in the last four decades. He is the second in a row to go to prison; his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, currently is serving 6 1/2 years. The other two got three years or less.
Blagojevich, in a last plea for mercy, tried something he never had before: an apology. After years of insisting he was innocent, he told the judge he’d made "terrible mistakes" and acknowledged that he broke the law — even as he maintained that at the time he did not know he was breaking the law.
"I caused it all, I’m not blaming anybody," Blagojevich said. "I was the governor and I should have known better and I am just so incredibly sorry."
But Zagel gave him little leeway.
"Whatever good things you did for people as governor, and you did some, I am more concerned with the occasions when you wanted to use your powers … to do things that were only good for yourself," Zagel said.
The judge said he did not believe Blagojevich’s contention, as his lawyers wrote in briefings, that his comments about the corruption schemes were simply "musings." Zagel said the jury concluded and he agreed that Blagojevich was engaged in actual schemes, and the undeniable leader of those schemes.
"The governor was not marched along this criminal path by his staff," Zagel said. "He marched them."
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 15 to 20 years, which Blagojevich’s attorneys said was too harsh. The defense also presented heartfelt appeals from Blagojevich’s family, including letters from his wife and one of his two daughters that pleaded for mercy.
But the judge made it clear early in the hearing that he believed that Blagojevich had lied on the witness stand when he tried to explain his scheming for the Senate seat, and he did not believe defense suggestions that the former governor was duped by his advisers.
The 54-year-old was ordered to begin serving his sentence on Feb. 16. In white-collar cases, convicted felons are usually given at least a few weeks to report to prison while federal authorities select a suitable facility. Blagojevich is expected to appeal his conviction, but it is unlikely to affect when he reports to prison.
Most of the prisons where Blagojevich could end up are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Ind., where Ryan is serving his own sentence. In prison, Blagojevich will largely be cut off from the outside world. Visits by family are strictly limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job — possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors — at just 12 cents an hour.
According to federal rules, felons must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence a judge imposes — meaning Blagojevich wouldn’t be eligible for early release until he serves nearly 12 years.
Going into the sentencing, many legal experts said the governor — who became a national punch line while doing reality TV appearances such as "Celebrity Apprentice" while his legal case unfolded — was likely to get around 10 years. A former Blagojevich fundraiser, Tony Rezko, recently was sentenced to 10 1/2 years, minus time served.
Prosecutors have said Blagojevich misused the power of his office "from the very moment he became governor." He was initially elected in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up Illinois politics in the midst of federal investigations that led to the prosecution and conviction of Ryan.
Defense attorneys have said Blagojevich has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, and had proposed a term of just a few years.
Blagojevich’s sentencing came just days before his 55th birthday on Saturday, and nearly three years to the day of his arrest at dawn on Dec. 9, 2008, when the startled governor asked one federal agent, "Is this a joke?" In a state where corruption has been commonplace, images of Blagojevich being led away in handcuffs still came as a shock.
It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including that he demanded a donation from a hospital executive in return for increased state support for children’s health care, and seeking to extort donations from a racing executive in exchange for quick approval of legislation.
FBI wiretap evidence proved decisive. In the most notorious recording, Blagojevich is heard crowing that his chance to name someone to Obama’s seat was "f—ing golden" and he wouldn’t let it go "for f—ing nothing."
Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time. Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: "No. I don’t let myself go there."
In the same interview, Blagojevich also explained that the family dog Skittles was bought after his arrest in to help his school-age daughters, Amy and Annie, cope with the stress of his legal troubles. He said he joked with them that, "If the worst happens (and I go to prison), you can get another dog and call him ‘Daddy.’"
Associated Press writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report.