Rod Blagojevich is a crook.
Everyone remembers his attempt to sell President Barack Obama’s former U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. That’s the charge President Donald Trump focused on when he said Blagojevich “shouldn’t have been put in jail” for it.
But Blagojevich committed worse crimes than that.
Trump is now considering commuting the rest of Blagojevich’s 14-year prison sentence. The disgraced former Illinois governor, who’s served about six years in federal prison on his corruption convictions so far, officially filed paperwork Tuesday asking Trump to free him.
But to have an honest discussion about whether 14 years is too long of a sentence for a person not convicted of a violent crime, we have to view the whole picture. Attempting to sell Obama’s Senate seat is just one piece of the puzzle.
“If we’re going to have this discussion, we have to put this in proper context,” said former state Rep. Jack Franks, now chairman of the McHenry County Board in Chicago’s northwest suburbs.
That starts with how he got elected governor in the first place.
A former congressman, Blagojevich won the state’s highest executive office as his immediate predecessor, George Ryan, was under investigation for the “Operation Safe Road” scheme in which he and his cohorts were illegally selling state licenses and contracts during his time as secretary of state. The Ryan pay-to-play investigation began after six children from a Chicago family were killed in a Wisconsin crash involving an unqualified truck driver who illegally obtained his Illinois truckers’ license by bribing employees’ in Ryan’s office.
“Illinois was in a crisis,” Franks said. “He [Blagojevich] campaigned on cleaning up Illinois and ending business as usual. Instead, from day one, it ended up being a criminal enterprise.”
Franks arguably was Blagojevich’s most vocal critic in the General Assembly, calling for investigations well before it was revealed the feds were targeting the former governor.
Franks also was among the first to call for an impeachment of Blagojevich.
“He was held to a higher bar because that’s what he ran on and that’s what we needed,” Franks said. “But he turbocharged into the gutter. Everything was for sale for his personal benefit.”
Among the other charges against Blagojevich:
• Attempting to extort Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a $50,000 campaign contribution with the threat of increasing the amount the hospital would have to pay for Medicaid reimbursements.
• Attempting to extort $100,000 in campaign contributions from a race track owner by holding up legislation to help the horse racing industry.
• Extorting and attempting to extort more than $2 million in campaign contributions from companies and others seeking to do business with the state.
• Scheming to raid state pension funds in a deal that would redirect state bond refinancing cash to a company that would split the money with Blagojevich and accomplices.
• Attempting to extort the owners of the Chicago Tribune in an attempt to fire editorial page editors who were critical of the governor in exchange for helping the company sell Wrigley Field.
Blagojevich was the epitome of the kind of corrupt pay-to-play politics that has plagued Illinois since its founding.
Four of the past eight Illinois governors have gone to prison, including Ryan and Blagojevich.
“When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired,” Judge James B. Vagel said at his sentencing hearing. “You did that damage.”
Contrary to Trump’s statement, Blagojevich deserved to go to prison.
But for 14 years?
“Blagojevich’s case and behavior has been reviewed by judges, many judges, including the Supreme Court, by many legal experts, many attorneys,” Gov. Bruce Rauner said this week. “They’ve all come to the conclusion that Blagojevich is where he belongs and he should stay where he’s at.”
“On its merits, there’s no case for a commutation unless there’s remorse and admission of guilt,” he said.
Trump will do what he wants regardless what Rauner, Franks or anyone else thinks.
I just hope the president’s advisers explain in detail Blagojevich’s many crimes against the state of Illinois before he makes his decision.
Dan McCaleb is news director of Watchdog.org.
A version of this Op-Ed previously appeared on Watchdog.org under the headline “Op-Ed: Trump needs whole picture before deciding on Blagojevich.”
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