CHICAGO – After all his claims of innocence and facing years in prison, Rod Blagojevich let his lawyers make an admission that he has so far avoided — that he is, in fact, guilty of public corruption.
The former Illinois governor will get a chance to do the same Wednesday, when he is scheduled to address the judge who will decide his sentence.
Judge James Zagel signaled Tuesday he may be prepared to impose a stiff prison sentence, saying he thinks Blagojevich lied when he told jurors he never tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
Throughout the first day of his two-day sentencing hearing, the impeached executive-turned-reality TV star known for his jocular personality was somber and ill-at-ease, staring down at the floor. His wife sobbed as a letter from their daughter was read begging Zagel not to send Blagojevich to prison.
The hearing was a stark contrast to the circus atmosphere around Blagojevich's trials on multiple counts of corruption.
The conciliatory tone came as something of a surprise — just days after defense filings that, as many times before, stridently declared Blagojevich's innocence and said he had been duped by aides but never intended to cross any lines into illegality.
Attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Zagel it was illegal for Blagojevich to ask for a job for himself in exchange for naming Obama's replacement in the Senate.
"There's no doubt this is a crime to do this in relation to the Senate seat, we accept that," he said. "I am just saying that does not call for a 15- to 20-year jail" term as prosecutors have requested.
Sorosky made the same argument when he talked about the other crimes for which Blagojevich was convicted: shaking down a racetrack executive and a hospital executive, as well as lying to the FBI.
At Tuesday's hearing, Blagojevich ringed his hands and pulled nervously at his fingers, pausing occasionally to sip on a plastic bottle of Cherry Coke. Legal experts believe Blagojevich needs to express remorse for his actions when addressing the judge Wednesday.
Zagel, who has said he'll pronounce a sentence Wednesday, said early on during Tuesday's hearing that Blagojevich was clearly the ringleader of the schemes for which he was convicted and that he lied about his actions on the witness stand. The judge made it clear he did not believe a suggestion made by defense attorneys that Blagojevich was duped by aides and advisers.
"There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding," Zagel said of Blagojevich's comments on phone conversations secretly recorded by the FBI. "His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions."
And in a harsh assessment of Blagojevich's performance on the witness stand, Zagel said the former governor was lying when he testified that he planned to appoint the state's attorney general to Obama's seat in a political deal that is legal.
"I think this is untrue," Zagel said. "I thought it was untrue when he said it and I think it is still untrue."
Defense attorney Aaron Goldstein pleaded with the judge not to impose a lengthy prison sentence — not for Blagojevich's sake, but for that of his family. In an emotional few minutes before proceedings ended for the day, Goldstein said locking Blagojevich up for a long time would devastate his wife and two daughters.
When Goldstein began reading a letter to the judge from Blagojevich's older daughter, 15-year-old Amy, the former governor suddenly seemed to fight to maintain his composure, fidgeting with a pen, biting on his lip. An attorney turned to gently pat his shoulder.
Amy wrote that she needs her father for all the things that will happen in her life — graduation from high school, applying to college and when her heart gets broken. In another letter, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, asked Zagel to "please be merciful" and said the punishment her husband fears the most is not seeing his daughters grow up.
Zagel seemed engaged in what Goldstein was saying as he described Blagojevich as a father. Patti Blagojevich began sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks, then dabbing her reddened face with a tissue. She closed her eyes tight, tears still rolling down her face, when Goldstein played a tape recording of a giddy Blagojevich calling his younger daughter, who is now 8, and putting on a high baby-like voice, saying "Hey Annie!"
A second defense attorney told the judge that Illinois history of political corruption shouldn't count against Blagojevich. Carolyn Gurland said it would be unfair to Blagojevich for Zagel to impose a tougher sentence because other Illinois politicians, including former Gov. George Ryan and U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, have been sent to prison for corruption.
"The law is clear that he should not be punished because of the history of corruption in Illinois," she said.
If Blagojevich gets the 15 to 20 years in prison, she said, he would become the most severely punished public official in state history.
Prosecutors say the twice-elected governor not only shirked all responsibility for his crimes but repeatedly thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system. Blagojevich's attorneys have said he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, and propose a term of just a few years.
Gurland also argued that Zagel should take into account the fact that Blagojevich did not "receive a single penny" in ill-gotten gains, unlike other politicians convicted of public corruption.
"Rod Blagojevich received nothing," she said, adding that Blagojevich was doing what politicians do by seeking campaign contributions and not "money stuffed into envelopes."
Blagojevich and his wife knew they were setting themselves up for ridicule by appearing on reality television shows, she said, but they did so to provide for their children. Blagojevich appeared on "Celebrity Apprentice," where he struggled to use a cellphone, and his wife ate a tarantula on the reality show, "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!"
Blagojevich's sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest. The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.
Among the court attendees Tuesday were more than a dozen jurors from both of Blagojevich's trials, including both foremen.
After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job — possibly scrubbing toilets — at just 12 cents an hour.
Michael Tarm can be reached at www.twitter.com/mtarm