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Blagojevich's 14-Year Term Starts In February


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer, in for Renee Montagne.

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for corruption. Yesterday's sentence came almost three years to the day since federal authorities arrested then-Governor Blagojevich. Soon, the man who once took to celebrity shows to profess his innocence, will head to a federal prison. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Standing in a large ceremonial courtroom packed with spectators, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich asked Judge James Zagel for mercy. There was no bluster, instead a contrite Blagojevich spoke slowly, apologizing over and over to the people of Illinois, to the court and his family as he tightly gripped the sides of the podium he stood behind.

Blagojevich told Judge Zagel he accepted his 18 convictions for corruption, which included trying to sell the U.S. senate seat once held by President Obama. Blagojevich said he had nobody but himself to blame for his stupidity, that he was the governor of Illinois and should have known better. Later, with his wife and attorneys by his side, he spoke briefly to the media.

ROD BLAGOJEVICH: This is a time to be strong. This is a time to fight through adversity. This is a time for me to be strong for my children, be strong for Patti. And this is also a time for Patti and me to get home so we can explain to our kids - our babies, Amy and Annie - what happened, what all this means and where we're going from here.

CORLEY: Judge Zagel accepted Blagojevich's apology and said he should have apologized to more people than he did. He told Blagojevich that when a governor goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is disfigured and not easily repaired. You did that governor, Judge Zagel said, and sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years. Prosecutors had asked for even more time.

ANDY SHAW: He is the consummate politician, and he is used to flowery speeches that are long on BS and short on substance

CORLEY: Andy Shaw with the Better Government Association says even so, Blagojevich's apology did help him.

SHAW: It came because he had to be truthful to his children in a way he could never be truthful with the voters of Illinois. Unfortunately for him, it came too little too late.

CORLEY: In addition to the conviction for the senate seat, Blagojevich was found guilty of bribery and extortion, of trying to shakedown the head of a children's hospital seeking increased state support and race track owners who wanted him to approve legislation.

As he handed down the sentence, Judge Zagel told Blagojevich his criminal acts helped erode the public's trust in government. Juror Jessica Hubinek says she thought the sentence was harsh, but the Blagojevich trial made her cynical about politics.

JESSICA HUBINEK: I think seeing Blagojevich on the stand and being so charismatic as he is, and knowing at some point that he's trying to manipulate you, it makes me wonder how many are doing that.

CORLEY: Blagojevich is the fourth Illinois governor to be sentenced to prison. His predecessor George Ryan remains behind bars. But the Blagojevich prison term is more than double his. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald sat in the back of the courtroom during the sentencing. He says it sends a strong message to any public official thinking about committing a crime.

PATRICK FITZGERALD: If a 14 year sentence doesn't stop someone, I wouldn't want to be sitting in front of a judge after that.

CORLEY: Juror Connie Wilson, who served as the forewoman during the second trial says Judge Zagel's strong sentence is not just a message for public officials, but for citizens as well.

CONNIE WILSON: We elect officials and we don't even bother to find out who they are. The complacency that we have, well this is just politics as usual, we can't change anything. I disagree.

CORLEY: James Matsumoto was the jury foreman during the first Blagojevich trial, where jurors deadlocked, finding the former governor guilty of only one charge. Matsumoto says the 14 year sentence Blagojevich received was vindication.

JAMES MATSUMOTO: Even though we may have corrupt politicians, there is process that will give the people justice. So I think that in that respect it's very good.

CORLEY: Rod Blagojevich turns 55 years old on Saturday. He's likely to appeal his conviction, but he's to begin serving his sentence February 16th.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley
Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.