A federal judge on Tuesday declined to lower former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's prison sentence, maintaining his original 14 years, despite an appeals court tossing five of the 18 counts the jailed ex-governor was convicted on.
"I am sympathetic to [his family], but as I said four years ago, the fault lies with the governor," U.S. District Judge James Zagel said before making his ruling.
In his first public appearance since entering prison, Blagojevich was shown on a courtroom camera as he learned his fate during his last attempt at early release.
He shook his head and stared stoically into the camera as Zagel, the same judge who sent Blagojevich to prison in the first place more than four years ago, ordered he remain in prison for his original 168-month sentence. His daughters could be heard crying in the courtroom, knowing their father won't be released until 2024.
Appearing via a video conference from his Colorado prison, an emotional, fidgety and gray-haired Blagojevich addressed the court before the ruling, saying he's "trying to be the best man I can."
"I recognize that my words and actions have led me here," he said. "I've made mistakes. I wish I had a way to return the clock back."
Speaking for nearly 18 minutes, Blagojevich thanked Zagel for giving him the chance to apologize and noted that time away from his family has taken a toll on him.
"I experience very real sadness when I think of my family and I blame myself for that...Trying to make amends for that," he said.
The resentencing hearing followed a decision from the United States Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which tossed five of the 18 counts on which Blagojevich had been convicted and ordered the former governor be resentenced.
Attorneys for Blagojevich asked for a reduction in his 14-year sentence for extortion and bribery, but the government urged Judge Zagel to keep his full sentence intact.
In his final words to the judge Tuesday, Blagojevich's attorney asked for a 5-year sentence saying, "We believe he's ready to come home."
Prosecutors argued, however, that Blagojevich "is the same man who appeared before [Zagel] in 2011."
Both of Blagojevich's daughters spoke in court Tuesday, detailing the difficulties they've faced without their father present.
"We speak every night, he helps me with my homework, he knows everything," Annie Blagojevich said.
"I almost don't want to grow up because I want to wait for him," she added.
Blagojevich pursed his lips, weeping as his daughters spoke in court.
"He has never given up on us and we will never give up on him," Amy Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, who wrote a two-page letter pleading with Zagel for leniency ahead of the hearing, called the ruling a "profound disappointment."
"From our point of view, and from the point of view of thousands of people that have reached out to me in the past four years, we find his sentence unusually cruel and heartless and unfair," she said outside the courtroom Tuesday. "I would like to express our thanks to everyone who has reached out to us with well wishes and prayers and thoughts hoping that today was going to go differently than what it did. Somehow we will get through this. We love Rod and we will be here for him as we continue to fight through this legal system that has unfortunately disappointed us over and over again... I don’t really have anything else to say. I’m dumbfounded and flabbergasted at the inability for the judge to see that things are different than how they were 4.5 years ago and his unwillingness to bestow even the smallest amount of leniency, or mercy, or kindness.”
His brother, Robert Blagojevich, was seen walking into the courtroom Tuesday.
“He’s my brother, I love him. He’s my only remaining blood relative. I want to be here and see how he is,” he said outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. “My brother has a lot of potential. He’s got a lot to give back to his community and I’m hopeful that Judge Zagel will determine that he’s got a lot of potential left to give back. So I’m hoping for the best for my brother.”
The resentencing was ordered by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last summer. The counts that were thrown out dealt directly with his alleged efforts to swap the appointment of Valerie Jarrett to the Barack Obama senate seat, in exchange for position in the new President’s cabinet. Prosecutorssaid at the time they would not seek to re-try the former governor on the overturned counts.
In tossing those counts, however, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals also noted that “it is not possible to call 168 months unlawfully high for Blagojevich’s crimes.”
The former governor, who once appeared on Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” has already served more than four years in prison.
In his strongest statement of remorse to date, Blagojevich conceded last month that he was not blameless in his fundraising efforts, that he “regrets his conduct, which was distasteful or worse and showed extremely poor judgment."
In a sentencing memorandum filed in July, Blagojevich’s attorney Leonard Goodman declared that his client’s pursuit of a challenge to his conviction “does not in any way lessen the remorse that he feels for his behavior.” But the former governor noted that he never collected any fraudulent monies, and that he had spent his time behind bars “improving himself as a person, through hard work, while also being of service to other inmates.”
Attached to the memorandum were more than 100 letters from prisoners, who called Blagojevich "The Gov," and wrote about the positive impacts he has made during his time behind bars.
“He never snubs anyone and is very humble," one inmate wrote. "I believe he would be an upstanding citizen and doing much more for our society out there than in this prison."
In arguing against a reduction in Blagojevich’s sentence, prosecutors noted that “the defendant remains convicted of the same three charged shakedowns of which he stood convicted at the original sentencing: the Senate seat shakedown, the racetrack shakedown, and the hospital shakedown.”
That sentiment was echoed by Zagel in his ruling.
"I don't dispute [the governor] may be a model prisoner," Zagel said. "[Inmates] think of him as a good man, but they don't know him, don't know him in the context of a powerful politician."
As court ended, a visibly upset Blagojevich was seen on camera grabbing his court file and walking out of view.