Rod Blagojevich was a golden boy in Illinois politics, jetting from Congress to the governor’s mansion in a flash. Once there, it seems, he had his eye on the gold, converting the office into a cash machine.
Now, ever the opportunist, Blago has his eye on a new gilded treasure: freedom, by way of Donald Trump. And on Thursday it looked like Trump might have fallen for the imprisoned former governor — and “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant — when the president said he is considering commuting Blagojevich’s sentence.
Back in 2008, Blagojevich summed up his view tightly in a conversation with an aide, recorded courtesy of a wiretap by the FBI, already deep into an investigation of his widespread corruption at the time. Blago saw his duty to name a new U.S. senator, after Barack Obama got elected president, as his ticket to profit.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s f ——— golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for f ——— nothing. I’m not gonna do it,” Blagojevich boasted in a wiretapped phone call.
Blago’s golden ticket turned into fool’s gold. On the irrefutable corruption of that call and others, the feds brought him to trial, and a judge and jury sent him to prison for 14 years.
Now Blagojevich wants us all to know he is being singled out unfairly. “I’m in Prison for Practicing Politics,” bleats the headline of an opinion piece he wrote for Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. The six years he has served — with eight to go, now that the Supreme Court has turned down his last-ditch appeal — is a miscarriage of justice, he wants us to know.
“The rule of law is under assault in America. It is being perverted and abused by the people sworn to uphold it,” Blagojevich wrote from the federal penitentiary in Littleton, Colo.Justice Department and FBI officials are abusing their power, he wrote. They created a crime when they couldn’t find one.
If these sound like tropes of Trumpian outrage, that’s not by accident. In rhetoric as in graft, Blago is as heavy-handed as they come. He mimics Trump hoping the president will commute his sentence or give him clemency or a pardon — and he may be getting his way, now that Trump is considering the idea.
In calculating the odds that Blago will be released, we Illinoisans have the unfortunate circumstance of actually having a track record to measure by. Blago’s predecessor, George Ryan, went to prison for public corruption. Despite a relentless legal campaign to release him, Ryan never caught a break.
But Blago knows things are different with Trump in the White House, and he is seeking to paint himself as just another pol who was playing by the wretched but legal rules of pay-as-you-go politics. “Fundraising is a routine and necessary part of America’s political system,” he wrote in his Wall Street Journal commentary.
That is true. But define “fundraising” with Blago’s lexicon, and you’ve got something corruptly different altogether. By Blagojevich’s definition, “fundraising” included withholding a hike in state payments to Children’s Memorial Hospital to pressure the CEO to contribute $25,000 to his campaign fund.
“Fundraising” meant blocking legislation favoring the horse-racing industry unless a track owner delivered a $100,000 political donation. “Fundraising” meant dangling Obama’s open Senate seat before then-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. at a price of $1.5 million.
Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor under US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who prosecuted Blagojevich, has found rare grounds for agreement with Blagojevich. He agrees with Blago that the governor’s case serves as an object lesson — it’s just that the lesson we should take away is not the one that Blago is concocting in his appeal to Trump.
Blagojevich thinks his case is a warning that innocent politicians can be sent to prison simply for leveraging their positions to legally raise money and maintain their hold on power. Wrong, says Cramer. Blago’s case is a warning that juries and courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court, will hold politicians responsible for their corruption and make them serve time for their crimes.
“If there is a politician in Illinois who is thinking about doing something remotely similar to what Rod Blagojevich did, the bidding starts at 14 years” in jail, Cramer said.
”Illinois can be a swamp, and there is a lot of public corruption that can go on here,” Cramer added. “That doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye.”
For years, no one could make such a bold statement with a straight face. But after courts sent two consecutive governors to jail, along with various fixers, aldermen on the take, a corrupt Chicago schools chief and others, there are signs the citizens of Illinois are standing up to the corruption that has rotted the state for far too long.
Maybe even Blagojevich, in an unguarded moment, could see the change coming. On Dec. 4, 2008, just days before the feds arrested him, Blago urged a fundraiser to be discrete while leaning on a prospective Senate candidate to pony up for the job.
“You gotta be careful how you express that, and assume everybody’s listening, the whole world is listening. You hear me?” Blago said.
We heard you, Gov. Fourteen Years Behind Bars. We heard you loud and clear.
David Greising is president and chief executive officer of the Better Government Association. This column was courtesy of the Associated Press.