When Rod Blagojevich was elected the 40th governor of Illinois nine years ago, he ran as the anti-corruption candidate and enjoyed the support of an up-and-coming state senator named Barack Obama, who served as a senior campaign aide.
Now, with his conviction yesterday on 17 of 20 corruption charges, including trying to sell Obama’s US Senate seat to the highest bidder, Blagojevich has assumed another distinction — being the fourth Illinois governor in recent history to be headed to jail.
In fact, he faces up to 300 years in the slammer — quite a comedown for the mile-a-minute talker who appeared on “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “The Early Show” and “The View,” along with numerous cable news shows during a two-day media blitz two years ago.
The Chicago-born son of a Serbian steelworker, Blagojevich worked his way quickly up the Illinois Democratic Party totem pole, going from a state representative to the governorship in nine years.
But federal investigators became suspicious of his political wheeling and dealing as early as 2004, and in 2006, US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said he had witnesses to “very serious allegations of endemic hiring fraud” in the Blagojevich administration.
The Brooklyn-born Fitzgerald, who has won federal convictions against Bush administration insider Scooter Libby, media mogul Conrad Black and George Ryan — the previous Illinois governor — among others, became Blagojevich’s nemesis.
Fitzgerald’s suspicions intensified after Obama was elected president in November 2008 — and Blagojevich found himself in the rare position of being able to hand a US Senate seat to whomever he wanted.
Less than a month later, Blagojevich was awakened by the feds and led out of his Chicago home in handcuffs. Fitzgerald said he was guilty “of the kind of conduct that would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
The chief weapons the feds had against the governor were his own words, recorded in hours of wiretaps.
Speaking about the Senate seat, Blagojevich was heard saying, “I’ve got this thing and it’s f- -king golden. I’m not giving it up for f- -king nothing. I’m not gonna do it.”
While his lawyers claimed the tapes were just the ramblings of a blowhard, Blagojevich launched his own bizarre defense campaign.
He called federal prosecutors “cowards and liars” and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was “man enough.” He did numerous interviews and insisted he wouldn’t resign. “I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath,” he said.
But the Illinois House voted 114-1 to impeach him and the state Senate convicted him in January 2009. Blagojevich, who had won two terms as governor, was removed from office and replaced by his lieutenant governor.
Nevertheless, “Blago” basked in his newfound pariah status. In March 2010, shortly before his first trial, he competed with Cyndi Lauper, Bret Michaels and others on “Celebrity Apprentice.”
He sent his wife, Patti, to the jungle for a reality television show, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here,” on which she had to eat a tarantula. And, for a while, his strategy worked.
He had promised to testify on his own behalf, but his lawyers didn’t call a single witness in his first trial. After 14 days of deliberation, a deadlocked jury could reach a guilty verdict on only one of the 24 counts, lying to the FBI.
The feds vowed to do better when the retrial began April 20. This time, Blagojevich’s lawyers called Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the stand as defense witnesses, but they were questioned only briefly.
Blagojevich, 54, couldn’t contain himself any longer, and on May 26, he took the stand himself.
“I used to be your governor. I’m here today . . . to tell you the truth” were his first words to the jurors.
He was on the stand for seven days, saying he liked to talk big, but he wasn’t a crook.
The former governor claimed the wiretaps showed him tossing out ideas, “good ones, bad ones, stupid ones.”
Well, he told jurors, he even thought of appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could travel to Afghanistan and help hunt down Osama bin Laden.
And he apologized for all the cursing on the wiretaps.
“When I hear myself swearing like that, I am a f- -king jerk,” he told jurors.
His testimony ran an emotional gamut. He was indignant one moment, laughing the next and then near tears later.
It didn’t work.
After nine days of deliberations, jurors yesterday found him guilty of nearly all 20 counts.
“What happened?” a stunned Blagojevich said, turning to his lawyer as he heard the verdict. His wife slumped against her brother, and then rushed to embrace her husband.
Fitzgerald, who has been touted as a future FBI director, said his latest victory was a “bittersweet moment.”
But Fitzgerald added that he was pleased that the jury saw past Blagojevich’s explanation that he was just engaging in run-of-the-mill political wheeling and dealing.
“That couldn’t be any further from the truth,” Fitzgerald said.
“Selling a Senate seat, shaking down a children’s hospital [whose director was seeking better Medicaid reimbursement] and squeezing a person to give money before you sign a bill that benefits them is not a gray area. It’s a crime.”
Fitzgerald said it was sad that he had to deal with convicting another Illinois governor — five years after he convicted the last one, Ryan, a Republican, who is currently serving a 6½-year prison term.
The jurors, 11 women and one man, said they found their former governor likeable, but the evidence spoke louder.
“He was personable,” said one juror. “It made it hard to separate what we actively had to do as jurors.”
The forewoman, a retired director of music and liturgy at a church, joked that she told her husband that if he’s considering a career in politics, he’d have to find a new wife.
It was a different Blagojevich who left the courthouse, hand in hand with his wife.
“Among the many lessons I’ve learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I’m going to keep my remarks kind of short,” he told reporters.
“I frankly am stunned,” he added. “There’s not much left to say.”Tags:
federal convictions, rod blagojevich, us senate seat