CHICAGO — Flying high above the country on Air Force One late Wednesday, President Donald Trump again teased that he might commute the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ending his time in a federal prison in Colorado. Even the possibility of Blagojevich coming back to Chicago more than four years before his sentence was expected to end sent reporters here scrambling for their laptops and quickly became the talk of the town, again. Amateur legal experts around the water cooler also were weighing in Thursday about what the fate of the city's most famous head of hair should be.
Here is a rundown of five frequent questions raised about whether Blagojevich should see his sentence commuted and be released from prison:
Was Rod Blagojevich's 14-year sentence unusually long?
Yes and no. It was longer than most recent public corruption sentences here, but the sentence is within federal guidelines for Blagojevich's crimes and is actually less than what prosecutors told U.S. District Judge James Zagel they wanted as his punishment, which was 15 to 20 years behind bars. Part of a judge's job in sentencing is to factor in deterrence to keep others from committing the same offense. The governor immediately preceding Blagojevich was George Ryan, who fell to his own corruption case in the licenses-for-bribes scandal. He was sentenced to six and a half years. The judge noted that apparently was not enough of a deterrent for Blagojevich and other Illinois and Chicago politicians who have followed in Ryan's footsteps. Some critics, however, pointed out that two years before handing down Blagojevich's sentence, Zagel sentenced cooperating Chicago Outfit hitman Nicholas Calabrese to 12 years in prison -- after he admitted on the witness stand to having a hand in the killings of 14 people.
Did federal prosecutors build a case around 'only talk'?
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This is mostly true. When many politicians get a whiff of federal crime investigators' interest in their activities, one of the first things their lawyers tell them is to be careful what they say on the phone. You never know who could be listening. Blagojevich seemed to take the opposite track in 2008, when news reports of a federal probe of his administration were swirling around him. Federal investigators captured scores of phone calls he made allegedly plotting to have people shaken down for campaign contributions and attempting to get something for himself in exchange for an appointment to Barack Obama's Senate seat, which he gave up after being elected president in 2008. The case was in fact built on all of that talking, but prosecutors said in Blagojevich's case, the talking was the crime. They famously argued that if a police officer pulls you over and then asks you for money to tear up a ticket, it's a crime for them to ask, even if you say no. It's an attempt to use government power for personal benefit, which is what Blagojevich was convicted of.
Is it true he never personally pocketed any money?
This is also true. Prosecutors presented no evidence that Blagojevich ever stuffed a mattress with cash from his schemes. His defense lawyers were quick to point out to jurors that no one ever saw Blagojevich scooting around town in a Mercedes Benz bought with giant bribes. But prosecutors did suggest that was partially because the governor's plans were cut short. One key witness against him was his longtime friend and former chief of staff, Lon Monk. Monk testified that after Blagojevich was elected, the two of them, along with close Blagojevich confidants Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Chris Kelly, agreed that they would use the levers of government inside the Blagojevich administration to make money. The plan, Monk said, was that the money would be kept secret by the group until after Blagojevich left office, and then split among them. It was Rezko (who was convicted in 2008) who at one point dipped into the pot early, and was told to put it back. Other elements of Blagojevich's alleged self-dealing included trying to get Obama to give him a government post or ambassadorship in exchange for appointing someone Obama wanted to his old Senate seat. That also would have been a thing of value for Blagojevich, the government said, but Obama rebuffed him.
Was Blagojevich really just 'playing politics,' as he has claimed?
Blagojevich's defense lawyers spent much of their time making this argument. Their efforts to convince Judge Zagel to let them "play all the (secretly recorded) tapes" of the governor was on this point: They wanted jurors to hear as many instances as possible where Blagojevich made it sound like he wanted to appoint then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate seat, hoping that Democratic Party leaders would then go through her powerful father, Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan, to push Blagojevich's platform through Springfield. Blagojevich's team argued that he was not trying to collect $1.5 million in campaign contributions from supporters of Jesse Jackson Jr., whom Blagojevich was also considering for the seat. As the argument went, Democrats in Washington did not want Jackson, then an Illinois representative in the House, joining the Senate. Blagojevich argued his discussion of Jackson on the tapes was him floating that threat, in his mind boosting the chances for what came to be known as "the Madigan deal." Prosecutors, however, pointed out that as Blagojevich was running out of string, just before his arrest, he directed his brother and chief fundraiser, Robert Blagojevich, to meet with the Jackson representatives and talk out the campaign contribution. It was at this time that investigators captured Blagojevich on tape urging his brother to be careful with his messaging on the matter and assume "the whole world is listening," which prosecutors said showed his real intent.
Should prosecutors let him out to spend time with his family?
Blagojevich at this point has missed dozens of holidays and birthdays as he sits in prison. His two daughters, Amy and Annie, were in grade school when he was convicted, and Amy, the oldest, has now graduated from Northwestern University. His wife Patti has consistently pointed out this part of the former governor's pain, and many courtroom observers felt sympathy for the couple's children whenever they would appear in court. Zagel also considered the impact on Blagojevich's family when he was sentenced but pointed out that Blagojevich had his family when he committed his crimes, and if anything should have stopped him, it should have been the thought of being separated from his children. But that was not to be the case. "Why did devotion as a father not deter him from engaging in such reckless conduct? ... Now it is too late," Zagel said at the hearing. "If it's any consolation to his children, he does not stand convicted of being a bad father."