Rod Blagojevich, who rode his talkative everyman image to two terms as Illinois governor before scandal made him a national punch line, was convicted today of a wide range of corruption charges, including the incendiary allegation that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama’s Senate seat.
The verdict was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who had spent 2½ years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team had insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.
He faces up to 300 years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines are sure to significantly reduce his time behind bars.
After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked “What happened?” His wife, Patti, slumped.
The verdict capped a long-running spectacle.
The former governor spoke only briefly with reporters as he left the courthouse, saying he was disappointed and stunned by the verdict.
“Well, 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,” Blagojevich said, adding that the couple wanted “to get home to our little girls and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out.”
Blagojevich, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, becomes the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 6½ years in federal prison.
The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.
Blagojevich, who was also accused of shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions, was swiftly impeached and removed from office.
The verdict provided affirmation to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, one of the nation’s most prominent prosecutors, who, after the governor’s arrest, had condemned Blagojevich’s dealings as a “political crime spree.”
“The jury sent a loud and clear message that Governor Blagojevich committed very serious crimes shaking down a children’s hospital, trying to sell a Senate seat and demanding cash campaign contributions in advance before signing a bill,” Fitzgerald said. “This is a bittersweet moment.”
Referring to the verdict against Ryan five years ago, he said: “I hope that that message is heard this time.”
Mentioned at times as a possible future FBI director, Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury deadlocked on all but the least serious of 24 charges against him.
This time, the 12 jurors voted to convict the 54-year-old Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating nine days. He also faces up to five additional years in prison for his previous conviction of lying to the FBI.
Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school.
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing to discuss sentencing was set for Aug. 1.
Two legal experts speculated that Blagojevich would probably receive around 10 years in prison, with little chance that he would get more than 15.
Former prosecutor Jeff Cramer estimated that Blagojevich would get between six and 12 years. Another former assistant U.S. attorney, Phil Turner, guessed closer to six years.
Judges have enormous discretion in sentencing and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.
All 12 jurors – 11 women and one man – spoke to reporters after the verdict, identifying themselves only by juror numbers. Their full names were to be released Tuesday.
Jurors said the evidence that Blagojevich tried to secure a high-paying, high-powered position in exchange for the appointment of Obama’s successor in the Senate was the clearest in the case.
“There was so much more evidence to go on,” said Juror No. 140. Jury members said they listened and re-listened to recordings of Blagojevich’s phone conversations with aides. They also acknowledged finding the former governor likable.
“He was personable,” Juror No. 103 said. “It made it hard to separate what we actively had to do as jurors.”
Still, Juror No. 140 said she found Blagojevich’s testimony over seven days at times “manipulative.”
“Our verdict shows that we didn’t believe it,” she said.
After his arrest, Blagojevich called federal prosecutors “cowards and liars” and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was “man enough.”
To most Illinois residents, he was a reminder of the corruption that has plagued the state for decades.
For the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense – highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.
“The problem was with some of his explanations,” Kling said. “It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, ‘Mommy I wasn’t taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.'”
Blagojevich seemed to believe he could talk his way out of trouble from the witness stand. Indignant one minute, laughing the next, seemingly in tears once, he endeavored to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps. He apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.
He told jurors his talk on the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas – “good ones, bad ones, stupid ones” – then toss the ill-conceived ones out. To demonstrate the absurdities such brainstorming could generate, he said he once considered appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could travel to Afghanistan and help hunt down Osama bin Laden.
Other times, when a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, “I see what I say here, but that’s not what I meant.”
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: “Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?”
“Yes,” Blagojevich eventually answered after the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections.