A contrite former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Wednesday to 14 years in federal prison, capping one of the state's worst political scandals and humbling a controversial and defiant figure who rode into office as a champion of reform.
The sentence handed Blagojevich was the second-longest ever delivered in federal court in Chicago for a public corruption case. But U.S. District Judge James Zagel made it clear that the former governor's position and the relentless history of corruption in Illinois demanded a harsh message.
"When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired," the judge lectured Blagojevich. "You did that damage."
The sentence is more than double the prison time given to Blagojevich's corrupt predecessor, George Ryan, and marks the fourth time since the 1970s that a former Illinois governor has been sent to prison for wrongdoing.
Blagojevich, who became the first Illinois governor impeached and involuntarily removed from office, is expected to turn himself in to start serving his sentence Feb. 16 -- putting two Illinois governors in prison at the same time. Ryan is serving a 61/2-year prison term.
Under federal sentencing rules, Blagojevich won't be eligible for release until early 2024, when he is 67 years old.
The former governor was sentenced after making a final plea to Zagel that saw him apologize to the court but seemingly stop just short of fully admitting he had done something criminal.
"I'm here convicted of crimes. The jury decided I was guilty," Blagojevich said, leaning with both hands on the courtroom lectern in front of Zagel. "I am accepting of it. I acknowledge it and I, of course, am unbelievably sorry for it."
Blagojevich's voice sometimes halted as he attempted to keep his emotions in check. He apologized to the people of Illinois, saying he thought what he was doing was permissible, but he acknowledged he should have known better.
He also apologized to his brother, who left his home and business in Nashville to become his fundraising chief in 2008 and who was tried along with him last year. The first Blagojevich jury, which deadlocked on all but one count, was unable to reach a verdict against Robert Blagojevich, and prosecutors subsequently dropped the case against him.
And Blagojevich grew emotional as he apologized to his wife and daughters for the trouble he caused his family.
"My life is ruined," he said. "I have nobody to blame but myself for my stupidity and actions and words and what I thought I could do. I'm not blaming anybody."
In the first row of the courtroom, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, sometimes leaned forward in tears in her seat as those around her tried to console her.
Blagojevich also expressed remorse for dragging so much of the case into the news media, sometimes publicly challenging the integrity of prosecutors on television.
"I'm accustomed to fighting back, and I did and it was inappropriate," he said.
Zagel gave Blagojevich credit for accepting responsibility, saying he believed the former governor was "truthfully admitting his conduct." The judge noted that Blagojevich's acknowledgment was coming late, but Zagel said he was accounting for the difficulty Blagojevich likely had accepting responsibility sooner as a public figure.
The judge ruled, however, that Blagojevich's pleas for mercy on behalf of his two children and wife did come too late.
"Why did devotion as a father not deter him from engaging in such reckless conduct?
Now it is too late," Zagel said. "If it's any consolation to his children, he does not stand convicted of being a bad father."
Over the course of two trials, Blagojevich was convicted of 18 criminal counts involving the attempted sale of the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama, illegal shakedowns for campaign cash and lying to federal agents. Blagojevich's excuses have ranged from saying he wasn't stopped by a host of lawyers he had around him to arguing he never intended there to be a quid pro quo for the Senate seat.
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