Published December 20, 2015
A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned some of the corruption convictions that sent former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to prisoner for 14 years for trying to sell President Obama’s vacated Senate seat.
The unanimous ruling from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago means Blagojevich, 58, could serve less than his original sentence, of which he has currently served just over three years in a Colorado prison.
The three-judge panel dismissed five of the 18 counts and ordered that the former governor be resentenced, although it suggested the original sentence wasn’t necessarily extreme.
The panel ruled that Blagojevich’s attempt to obtain a seat in Obama’s cabinet did not cross the line between legal and illegal political wheeling and dealing. However, his attempts to trade the Senate seat for campaign cash did cross the line.
Blagojevich wanted a Cabinet job in exchange for appointing Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett to the vacant Senate seat. After Blagojevich's arrest, the seat went to Roland Burris, who served less than two years before a successor was chosen in a special election.
In its ruling, the appeals courts pointed to how President Dwight Eisenhower named Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court allegedly after Warren offered Eisenhower key political support during the 1952 campaign.
"If the (Blagojevich) prosecutor is right, and a swap of political favors involving a job for one of the politicians is a felony, then if the standard account is true both the President of the United States (Eisenhower) and the Chief Justice of the United States should have gone to prison," the ruling said.
Still, the ruling wasn't a resounding win for Blagojevich. The appellate judges upheld allegations that he sought to sell the Senate seat. He had argued that he didn't break the law because he never stated explicitly that he was willing to trade an appointment to the seat for campaign cash.
"Few politicians say, on or off the record, 'I will exchange official act X for payment Y,'" the opinion said. "Similarly persons who conspire to rob banks or distribute drugs do not propose or sign contracts in the statutory language. 'Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, you know what I mean' can amount to extortion ... just as it can furnish the gist of a Monty Python sketch."
Prosecutors could appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court or could choose to retry Blagojevich on the dropped counts, though prosecutors often decline to retry a case if most of the counts are upheld. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon declined to discuss the ruling, including prosecutors' next moves.
Despite the ruling overturning a number of the convictions, Blagojevich’s legal team expressed disappointment. Len Goodman, the lead lawyer on the appeal team, said the ruling “doesn’t address the most serious errors in the trial,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Blagojevich’s wife Patti said she was also disappointed with the ruling, and that her husband had never intended to break the law. She did, however, express hope that her husband would be given a more lenient sentence.
“I think most people think the sentence is harsh for someone who never put a penny in his pocket,” she said, adding that her husband was “optimistic that justice will prevail eventually.”
The two-term governor proclaimed his innocence for years. Taking the stand at his decisive retrial in 2011, a sometimes-tearful Blagojevich said he was a flawed man but no criminal.
Jurors eventually convicted him of 18 counts; 11 dealt with charges that he tried to swap an appointment to the seat for campaign cash or a job, once musing about becoming ambassador to India.
Blagojevich was also convicted on other play-to-pay schemes. They include the attempted shakedown of the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a contribution to Blagojevich's campaign.
After his arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, Blagojevich became the butt of jokes on late-night TV, including for his well-coiffed hair and his foul-mouthed rants on FBI wiretaps. The most notorious excerpt was one where he crows about the Senate seat, "I've got this thing and it's f------ golden. And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.