CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich is a former Democratic governor of Illinois. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence following his 2011 conviction on federal public corruption charges, including attempts to profit off of his power to fill the former U.S. Senate seat of then-President-elect Barack Obama.
His wife, Patti Blagojevich, and their legal team have been fighting the sentence ever since but effectively ran out of legal options last year.
That left a presidential pardon or a sentence commutation as the former governor's only real chance to be freed before 2024. It appears President Donald Trump, a Republican, has been listening: Trump has repeatedly flirted with granting Blagojevich some clemency since 2018.
On Aug. 7, 2019, Trump told reporters on Air Force One that he is "very strongly" considering commuting Blagojevich's sentence.
Here's what you should know about former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
He was elected governor in 2002, and corruption allegations soon followed
Blagojevich was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who was elected Illinois governor in 2002. He followed Republican George Ryan, who also was convicted and imprisoned on federal corruption charges.
With his election, Blagojevich became the state's first Democratic chief executive in more than a quarter of a century. During his campaign, he vowed to reform what he labeled the culture of corruption surrounding Ryan and that had fed deep cynicism among Illinoisans. But little more than a year after he took office, Blagojevich's administration was snagged in the early stages of what became a host of state and federal investigations into allegations of wrongdoing involving state hiring, board appointments, contracting and fundraising that battered his tenure.
After years operating under a cloud of alleged corruption, including several political associates who were arrested and convicted, Blagojevich was arrested in 2008 at his home in Chicago's Ravenswood Manor neighborhood on corruption charges.
He was charged with trying to sell Barack Obama's former Senate seat
The headline charge against Blagojevich was that he tried to sell Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate after Obama was elected president. As governor, Blagojevich had the power to appoint Obama's Senate replacement.
"I've got this thing and it's (expletive) golden," Blagojevich said in a conversation government agents secretly recorded. "I'm not just giving it up for (expletive) nothing."
When his first trial began in 2010, Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton argued that Blagojevich put his own interests ahead of the people he was supposed to represent, adopting a mantra of "What about me?" and demanding campaign cash and other favors in exchange for official acts.
He was impeached and convicted -- removing him from office -- before he faced trial
After Blagojevich was arrested on Dec. 9, 2008, and details of the allegations came out, Illinois politicians wasted no time removing him from office. The Illinois House voted to impeach him on Jan. 9, 2009, and the Illinois Senate unanimously voted to convict him on Jan. 29. Within hours, Blagojevich's former running mate and lieutenant governor, Pat Quinn, was sworn in as governor.
His court saga dragged on for years
Rod Blagojevich, the former Governor of Illinois, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He has served 7 years. Many people have asked that I study the possibility of commuting his sentence in that it was a very severe one. White House staff is continuing the review of this matter.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019
Blagojevich pleaded not guilty in April 2009; his first trial began in 2010. In that trial, the jury found him guilty on only one of the 24 felony counts he faced -- the panel couldn't agree on the other 23. U.S. District Judge James Zagel declared a mistrial on those. Federal prosecutors retried him, and in 2011 Blagojevich was found guilty on 17 of 20 counts, and he was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison.
He reported to a prison in Littleton, Colo., in 2012, but his legal team continued fighting. In 2015, a federal appeals court threw out five counts. But the same judge who originally sentenced him, Zagel, resentenced him to the same 14-year prison term on the reduced counts. Blagojevich's attempts to appeal were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, closing the door on his last legal option.
His relationship with Donald Trump goes back to 'The Celebrity Apprentice'
Blagojevich's relationship with Trump dates back to 2009, when the just-removed governor was picked to be a contestant on Trump's TV show, "The Celebrity Apprentice." Blagojevich only made it to the show's fourth episode, when he was fired for bungling facts about Harry Potter.
Even then, Trump had some sympathy for Blagojevich.
You have free articles remaining.
"I feel badly for him. He tried, but I feel badly. It's pretty sad," Trump said, according to a Chicago magazine recap of the episode.
After Trump was inaugurated, Blagojevich and his legal team launched a strategy to get Trump's attention with a calculated publicity campaign labeling the former governor's prosecution as unjust and politically motivated. Their strategy, in part, relied upon the former governor's wife, Patti Blagojevich, going on Fox News and drawing a clear line between former Chicago-based U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and former FBI chief James Comey, who are close friends.
It may have worked. Trump began talking about possibly commuting Blagojevich's sentence in May 2018. Blagojevich's lawyers filed formal paperwork to get the former governor pardoned the following month. Trump brought it up again Aug. 7, 2019, tying the conviction to his nemesis Comey and crediting Patti Blagojevich with making a strong argument.
"It was the same gang, the Comey gang and all these sleazebags that did it," Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One. "His wife I think is fantastic and I'm thinking about commuting his sentence very strongly. I think it's enough, seven years."
Who is his wife, Patti Blagojevich?
Patti Blagojevich has her own political clout. Her father is powerful former Chicago Ald. Dick Mell. A Tribune story from 2005 credited Mell's powerful political base on the North Side with getting Rod elected to the Illinois House, the U.S. House and governor.
The alderman had a public falling out with his daughter and son-in-law after Rod was elected governor, but they grew back together after the governor was charged. Mell retired from the City Council in 2013 and started a lobbying firm with Patti.
The former first lady also was under severe federal scrutiny during the investigation of her husband, though she was not criminally charged. Prosecutors said she received real estate commissions from an ally of Rod's, developer Tony Rezko, for doing no work. Rezko also was convicted of federal corruption charges.
Additionally, when the former Tribune Co. that owned the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs sought state assistance to rebuild Wrigley Field, she supported her husband's call to try to force owners to fire critical Chicago Tribune editorial writers.
In one of the government's recordings of conversations at their house, Patti Blagojevich said, "Hold up that (expletive) Cubs (expletive)," she said. "(Expletive) them. (Expletive) them."
What's the difference between commuting a sentence and pardoning someone?
Presidents have two main options to bestow mercy on someone, known broadly as clemency.
Trump has talked mostly about commuting Rod Blagojevich's sentence -- a move that would allow the former governor to leave prison early but would leave his conviction on the record. A pardon would go further, overturning Blagojevich's conviction and essentially finding him innocent retroactively.
What about Blagojevich and J.B. Pritzker?
Years before he was elected governor, J.B. Pritzker was caught on the feds' recordings of then-Gov. Blagojevich in 2008, talking about potential candidates to replace Obama in the Senate -- and Pritzker's desire to be appointed to a state office himself. The recordings didn't leak until 2018, when Pritzker was running for governor.
The Pritzker campaign acknowledged in 2018 that "J.B. had one short interview with" the FBI as part of the Blagojevich investigation. Federal authorities did not call Pritzker as a witness at either of Blagojevich's two trials, nor did they accuse him of any wrongdoing.