Five years ago today, I sat with Rod Blagojevich at a restaurant called “Freddie’s Steakburgers”.
By all accounts he was the same old Rod. At times jovial, gladhanding the lunchtime crowd, posing for photos and signing autographs.
Except Freddie’s was in suburban Denver---just a few miles from the federal penitentiary. And Blagojevich was about to drive those last few miles, to begin serving a 14-year sentence.
“Sometimes, inexplicably terrible things happen, calamities happen, disasters strike,” Blagojevich told us during that last interview. “There’s no sugar coating this. This is the hardest thing that I’ve had to do, and I have a hole in my heart. It’s an empty feeling.”
The hole in Blagojevich’s heart has only deepened during the five years since he spoke those words. He did manage to have five counts of his conviction thrown out on appeal. But when the former governor was resentenced on those counts, Judge James Zagel gave him the same 14-year sentence. And the United States Supreme Court declined to consider his case.
“He’s basically in prison for aggressive campaign fundraising,” says Leonard Goodman, the former governor’s appellate lawyer. “With all the money in politics, why Blagojevich, and why 14 years?”
Why indeed? Even some Blagojevich critics thought the sentence was unusually harsh for a politician who never took a dime in bribes. The five dismissed counts centered on the former governor’s alleged intention to sell the Barack Obama Senate seat. And now, Goodman says he will largely concentrate the second appeal on remaining counts which alleged illegal fundraising which he believes the court overlooked the first time around.
“Nobody in modern history has been prosecuted solely for campaign fundraising violations,” Goodman said, noting that the Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that fundraising is part of the American political decision. “So the Supreme Court said that can’t be a crime, because everybody does that!”
In that ruling, McCormick vs. United States, the court ruled that fundraising moves into illegal territory only when there is an explicit quid pro quo, a promise of an official act in exchange for contributions.
“In the Blagojevich case, there was no explicit promise,” he said.
That new appeal will be argued next month before the same Seventh Circuit Court which tossed the other five counts. Goodman and federal prosecutors will not know which judges will hear the case until minutes before those arguments begin.
“Everything’s on the table,” he said. “Including of course, the 14 year sentence.”
In the meantime, Blagojevich waits in Colorado. During his time there, he has moved from the main prison to the less restrictive “camp”, has taught classes, and mentored other inmates. His daughter Amy graduated high school. And he watched as a onetime political nemesis, Jesse Jackson Jr., was indicted for his own crimes, pled guilty, was sentenced to 30 months in prison and served his time.
Jackson admitted looting his campaign fund of $750,000. The evidence at his trials indicated Blagojevich received nothing. Yet he remains behind bars and is not scheduled to be released until 2024.
“He really is focused on this new appeal and he understands this is a great opportunity for him to have his case heard,” Goodman said. “And a lot of people don’t get that chance to get a second bite of the apple.”
During his resentencing hearing last August, spectators were only able to see the now-white haired Blagojevich via a flickering closed circuit television image, his family sobbing in court after learning his sentence would not be shortened.
As he prepared to drive to the prison that day at Freddie’s Steakburgers, the once flamboyant governor insisted that his number one goal would be to stay strong for his family.
“Like the poet said, the valleys make the mountains taller,” he said. “And I believe that ultimately right makes might, and the right will prevail.”