Reality TV Bites Blago at Sentencing

U.S. District Judge James Zagel may have set back a new trend in reality TV by years.

Before slamming former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich with a 14-year prison sentence Wednesday, Zagel made it clear that the government did not appreciate the twice-elected, once-impeached Democrat's antics on television while out on bail.

Federal prosecutors apparently didn't like Blago on Donald Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice." And somehow, they seem to have missed the humor of Blago going on David Letterman to proclaim his innocence.

Zagel, himself, refused to allow Blago to leave the country for NBC's, "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here." So he probably wasn't thrilled to see Blago's wife, Patti, appear on the show, instead.

It's horrifying enough seeing the nation's fifth-most-populous state sink in its own financial quicksand, let alone watching its former first lady eat a big, hairy tarantula on national TV.

During a two-day sentencing hearing, Zagel told one of Blago's attorneys, Carolyn Gurland, that reality TV was Blago's platform to portray his legal battle as a duel or a boxing match between himself and the U.S. Attorney, disrespecting the judicial process.

Gurland argued this wasn't the case, and that his television performances shouldn't be counted against Blago in sentencing.

"Mr. Blagojevich wanted to maintain his honor and stay strong for his wife and daughters," Gurland explained. "He was being paid handsomely to be a laughing stock."

Faced with financial ruin, the governor had no other option to keep his family's home, she said.

Blago, however, didn't make these excuses when it was his turn to speak.

"I was very keen on your comments that I viewed it as a duel and a boxing match," Blago told the judge. "I saw it exactly that way....I should have known better....It was childish and not productive."

Blago then offered the most-amazing performance of his life, accepting the jury's verdict, admitting he made mistakes, taking responsibility and profusely apologizing to everyone from the people of Illinois on down to his youngest daughter.

"I am responsible," he said. "I caused it all. I'm not blaming anybody. I was the governor, and I should have known better, and I am just so incredibly sorry."

Blago was convicted on 18 charges related to allegations he tried to sell President Obama's former U.S. Senate seat to U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. for $1.5 million. He was also accused of trying to trade the seat for a job, and for shaking down a children's hospital and a racetrack for campaign donations. You know, the kind of stuff you've always heard about Chicago politics, only Blago got caught.

In his allocution before the court, Blago brilliantly took moral responsibility for these things without taking the sort of legal responsibility that might hobble an appeal. This is a delicate monologue to deliver, but in a hearing where Blago's lawyers lost just about every argument, Blago scored.

Zagel accepted Blago's apology, although he acknowledged it was bit late, and then the judge announced he was dishing out a lighter sentence as a result.

After Zagel pronounced a still-harsh sentence, I saw the eyes that Blago beamed at his wife. I was sitting just two rows behind her, and let me tell you, they were far more sullen than the time Trump had to tell Blago he was fired.

If he is not a completely broken man, he is the best actor I've ever seen.

And laughing stock or not, Blago goes down in history as the first governor accused of political corruption to appear on reality TV shows while out on bail. Judge Zagel may not have liked this act, but it was a lot more fun than CSPAN.

I only wish Zagel had let this one point go. I want every white-collar defendant to feel encouraged to do a show while out on bail. I would watch the "Bernie Madoff Ponzi Hour." I would watch convicted inside trader Raj Rajaratnam on a stock-picking show.

Blago does not have to report to prison until Feb. 16, so there's time for some slick producer to put together a high concept.

Maybe they could style him as one of Chicago's new Blues Brothers -- Jake, Elwood and Blago -- in a live penitentiary performance. Or maybe they come up with a show like the Investigation Discovery channel's "I (Almost) Got Away With It," which profiles fugitives who made impressive dashes for freedom.

Every episode could show how Blago eludes authorities, despite having one of the most-recognizable hairstyles of any American governor.

They could call it "Run, Blago, Run." The Feds might not like it, but I'd bet they'd watch it.

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com.)