CHICAGO — As disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois stood in front of TV cameras this week and declared himself a political prisoner finally home from eight years of exile, his former running mate watched in disbelief.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn — the lieutenant governor who became the state’s chief executive after Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office in 2009 — had heard most of the routine before. The story of his immigrant parents, the poetry recitations and the historical references have been part of Blagojevich’s repertoire since his earliest days in politics.
But with Blagojevich fresh off his stint in federal prison, this time was different. What upset Quinn most, he said, was the pronounced self-pity, the lack of contrition and, perhaps more than anything, the audacity to discuss criminal justice reform.
Quinn inherited a backlog of nearly 3,000 clemency petitions when he took over from Blagojevich, who largely shirked his responsibility to review requests for commutations and pardons. The situation became so dire at one point, Cabrini Green Legal Aid sued Blagojevich to get him to act on their requests.
“It is ironic that someone who didn’t care about those people waiting for an answer, or the families waiting for them at home, was the beneficiary of a commutation,” Quinn said. “There was no remorse. There was no contrition. What we saw was disgraceful.”
In his winding “homecoming” speech and various media interviews since having his sentence commuted Tuesday by President Donald Trump, Blagojevich has woven a web of half-truths and, to critics, hypocrisies around his newly found freedom. He has promoted unfounded conspiracy theories, attacked his former prosecutors and downplayed his own criminal behavior.
And as he has been since the moment of his arrest, Blagojevich remains unrepentant. If anything, a lengthy incarceration has only strengthened his belief that he is the victim of political corruption and not the perpetrator.
He also seems emboldened by Trump’s bombastic style, which drastically changed the political and cultural landscape while Blagojevich was behind bars. That new reality allows for hurling allegations regardless of their veracity, excoriating perceived opponents in the media and often shouting down the truth.
Some are more qualified than others to see through the former governor’s effort to rewrite the history books.
“It’s strange, because if anyone knows about his guilt, it’s Rod Blagojevich,” said James Matsumoto, the jury foreman at his first criminal trial. “He heard the evidence at two trials. He has to know what he did was criminal.”
Blagojevich was first tried in 2010, with the jury convicting him on one count of lying to the FBI and deadlocking on the rest. At his re-trial in 2011, he was convicted of several shakedowns and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The punishment was more than double what his predecessor, ex-Gov. George Ryan, received after his corruption conviction in a licenses-for-bribes scandal, prompting many to question whether the judge acted too harshly. In Blagojevich’s eyes, his tragicomic legal ordeal was more persecution than prosecution.
“I’m returning home today from a long exile a freed political prisoner,” he told the media Wednesday from the stoop of his Chicago house. “I want to say again to the people of Illinois who twice elected me governor: I didn’t let you down. I would have let you down if I gave in to this. But resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Looking older and significantly grayer since his incarceration, Blagojevich spent his first days of freedom trying to restore a tarnished legacy. He showed no interest in a thoughtful debate about the appropriate punishment for his misdeeds, but rather he appeared determined to re-litigate his case.
Blagojevich’s argument begins with the incorrect assertion that the same people who took him down have also tried to unseat Trump. It’s an easily disproved accusation that Trump also pushed when announcing Blagojevich’s commutation Tuesday morning, and on Twitter the following day.
“He served 8 years in prison, with many remaining. He paid a big price. Another Comey and gang deal!” the president tweeted Wednesday.
Former FBI Director James Comey was U.S. deputy attorney general when the investigation into Blagojevich’s administration began, but he moved to the private sector in 2005 and played no role in Blagojevich’s arrest in 2008. Blagojevich had been in prison for more than a year when Comey assumed the FBI’s top post.
Blagojevich’s prosecution was overseen by Patrick Fitzgerald, then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Fitzgerald did not have any role in the Mueller investigation, though he has been representing Comey, a longtime friend, since Trump fired him in May 2017.
It is true that Robert Mueller was the FBI director at the time of Blagojevich’s arrest by agents in the FBI’s Chicago office. But then-U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee and frequent Trump defender, made the decision to tap the governor’s phones.
The facts, however, haven’t stopped Blagojevich from pushing the idea that he and Trump were targeted by mutual enemies.
“This is the larger fight that is before all of us as Americans,” Blagojevich said on Fox News Wednesday. “Some of these same people again have tried to do at the Major League-level to a Republican president what they were able successfully to do to a Democratic governor. And they are threatening to take away from all of us our rights to choose our own leaders through free and fair elections.”
The assertion defies time and logic, said former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Cramer, who worked under Fitzgerald.
“Everyone is trying to morph those facts,” Cramer said. “These prosecutors who investigated and convicted Blagojevich have been out of the (U.S. Department of Justice) for about 10 years. And the president is making some sort of twisted connect-the-dots between Jim Comey and Rod Blagojevich? When you have to go through these legal gymnastics, maybe the best answer is the most simple one, which is Rod Blagojevich is the poster child for public corruption in Illinois. And that is a pretty high bar.”
Randall Samborn, a lawyer and former longtime spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, including during the Blagojevich convictions, dismissed any suggestion that Fitzgerald or his prosecutors played any role in the Trump investigations.
And while Mueller was leading the FBI during the time of the Blagojevich investigation and prosecution, the practice at the time was to allow local teams of federal agents and prosecutors much more control — unlike what is transpiring today in Washington, Samborn added.
“Local FBI agents and prosecutors had some degree of independent autonomy in conducting investigations and prosecutions, unlike the more recent reaching across the transom by (Department of Justice) officials that we’ve seen in recent weeks,” Samborn said.
The former governor complains that the “uncontrolled” prosecution team improperly applied federal law to railroad him, another claim that does not withstand scrutiny. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the evidence against Blagojevich “overwhelming” and upheld the conviction, while the U.S. Supreme Court twice refused to hear his arguments.
The Illinois Senate voted unanimously to remove him from office for abusing his power. The Illinois House also had widespread bipartisan support for his impeachment, with only Blagojevich’s sister-in-law, then-Rep. Deb Mell, D-Ill., voting against it.
“For Rod Blagojevich to say somehow he is innocent is absurd,” Cramer said. “And several courts and a jury thought it was absurd.”
As Blagojevich continues to disparage federal prosecutors, some worry about the damage his claims could cause. With several aldermen and state lawmakers currently under investigation or indictment for allegedly abusing their positions, the U.S. attorney’s office is once again proving itself to be one of the most reliable weapons in the fight against public corruption, former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti said.
“The only constant in Illinois politics is that we rely upon federal prosecutors to fight corruption,” said Mariotti, who also worked under Fitzgerald. “You don’t want that public trust undermined, especially at this moment in time.”
Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on several corruption charges, including that he brazenly tried to sell President Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat in 2008. Trump has said he believed the 40th Illinois governor — the fourth to go to prison since the 1970s — was treated unfairly when U.S. Judge James Zagel sent him away for 14 years.
The commutation thrilled Blagojevich’s wife and two daughters, but drew strong rebukes from politicians in both parties. Illinois’ five-member Republican congressional delegation, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker derided Trump’s decision to release him roughly four years early, saying it sent the wrong message about the consequences of political corruption and was unfair to his victims.
Blagojevich and Trump shrugged off his actions as normal political talk, glossing over the fact he was convicted of trying to shake down the former Children’s Memorial Hospital for a $25,000 campaign donation in exchange for more state funding for pediatric specialists. The former governor did not mention that specific allegation during his public remarks Wednesday, though he did tout his efforts to provide more affordable health care for children in Illinois.
On wiretaps played during his criminal trial, Blagojevich mentioned a Medicaid reimbursement rate increase worth up to $10 million and his desire to hit up hospital CEO Patrick Magoon for contributions in almost the same breath. The rate hike would have gone to pay doctors who were backlogged in treating children for asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis.
Children’s Memorial, which has since changed its name to Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, said in 2008 that no one at the hospital participated in the scheme. They also issued a statement expressing disappointment that money to care for “Illinois’ neediest children has been tied to an alleged pay-for-play scheme.”
When asked about the scheme on Fox News, Blagojevich quickly retorted: “I actually sent that hospital $8 million.”
The hospital received the state funding after Blagojevich was arrested.
The former governor appeared to be parroting arguments he raised in his post-trial appeals — none of which succeeded to persuade any court that he didn’t try to extort Magoon.
“The hospital was pretty clear they were being shaken down,” Cramer said. “You have to laugh at the nerve. In the annals of public corruption, who shakes down a children’s hospital?”
Blagojevich had been scheduled to be released in March 2024. Instead, he finds himself back in Chicago and required to do community service until he finds a job. He has not said where he intends to seek employment, but he has expressed an interest in helping those who are wrongly incarcerated or serving unfair sentences.
“(Injustices) that not only destroyed their lives and steal from them their futures, but hurt their children and families,” Blagojevich lamented.
Blagojevich means it when he talks about reforming the system, a spokesman said in an email Friday.
“For the last 8 years, Gov. Blagojevich has seen firsthand how broken and racists the criminal justice system is — especially towards African-Americans and Latinos, who have been so unfairly treated,” wrote Mark Vargas. “There are a lot of people that are deserving of clemency, and he certainly wishes now that he had done more about it as governor. Historically, clemency is granted at the end of one’s term in office, and Gov. Blagojevich never got that chance to act.”
During his tenure, Blagojevich ruled on 1,024 requests, granting clemency to 72 individuals.
The suggestion raised some eyebrows among those familiar with Blagojevich’s lackluster record on criminal justice reform, including his former lieutenant governor. When Quinn assumed office in 2009, the 2,838-petition backlog created under Blagojevich’s administration was the largest in the nation. Some of the untouched requests dated back to January 2003, Blagojevich’s first month in office.
Given the law at the time, some petitioners were asking for pardons that would make it easier to have low-level crimes such as misdemeanor battery and felony retail theft erased from their records. Every year that their pleas went unheard made life more difficult, said Cynthia Cornelius, director of programs at Cabrini Green Legal Aid.
“It means your future is on hold,” Cornelius said. “People were seeking clemency in order to secure housing, employment, schooling or certifications. The years went by and they were still waiting.”
The group sued Blagojevich in 2006 for dodging his responsibilities, but he triumphed on appeal. Cornelius called his commutation a “travesty,” saying there are hundreds of thousands of prisoners more deserving of an early release.
Still, she hopes Blagojevich keeps his promise to help them.
“I’m willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “I hold out hope that because of what he experienced, he’ll have empathy for people still serving.”
Quinn addressed 4,268 clemency cases, approving 1,777 of them during his six years in office, according to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board. He worked through the backlog during four-hour review sessions each weekend and said he always looked for contrition or an apology from the petitioner.
He saw neither from Blagojevich this week. It makes him doubt whether the politician formerly known as Federal Inmate 40892-424 could usher in needed reforms.
“If he really cares about criminal justice reform,” Quinn said, “he has a lot of explaining to do — starting today.”
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