Throughout a long and now disgraced public career, Rod Blagojevich became known for his silver but often forked tongue. It is a reputation sure to loom large over this week's sentencing hearing for the convicted former governor as he mounts a last-ditch argument for leniency.
Blagojevich has had dress rehearsals for this sort of reckoning, first trying to talk state senators out of removing him from office in 2009, then testifying in his own defense last spring at his corruption retrial. Neither went over well.
"I have done absolutely nothing wrong," Blagojevich flatly told lawmakers at his impeachment trial. That foreshadowed the mantle of indignant victimhood he sought to cloak himself in right up through the moment in June that jurors found him guilty on 17 of 20 criminal counts, including allegations he tried to sell President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich earlier was convicted of lying to federal agents.
This time around the stakes are even higher for the ex-governor, who will turn 55 just days after the hearing that starts Tuesday but likely will continue into a second day. He faces the very real prospect of a long prison term — 15 to 20 years if prosecutors get their way.
Blagojevich has to somehow thread a needle of contrition, sincerely taking responsibility for wrongdoing that he has up to now defiantly refused to acknowledge or apologize for. And he has to do it to the satisfaction of U.S. District Judge James Zagel, the no-nonsense veteran jurist who has struggled to hide his contempt for the theatrics of Blagojevich and his legal team both in and out of the courtroom.
The ex-governor wants Zagel to grant him probation, a long shot that got even more remote when a different federal judge recently sentenced Blagojevich fundraiser and adviser Antoin "Tony" Rezko to 10 1/2 years for corruption.
Federal guidelines set some parameters for Zagel to follow in arriving at an appropriate sentence, but the judge has broad discretion to depart from them, and arguments from both sides at the hearing will aim to sway him.
Several factors can either add or subtract time behind bars. For example, how much money Blagojevich tried to shake down from campaign donors in his many schemes is an aggravating factor. The government tallies it at $1.6 million; the defense says it's zero.
There are also Blagojevich's contributions as governor and his personal life to consider. Several letters have already been submitted to the court, including some from neighbors and family members. The financial and emotional strain a long sentence will have on his family will most certainly be stressed.
Blagojevich's behavior since his arrest three years ago, however, could come back to haunt him at sentencing. If someone ever wrote a manual on how not to conduct yourself as a criminal defendant, Blagojevich might be Exhibit A.
He ignored advice to keep a low profile, prompting the leader of his legal team to quit in protest. He went on a media blitz taunting prosecutors and attacking witnesses. Both in court and out, he seemed incapable of holding his tongue even when it clearly infuriated Zagel, who now gets the final say on how much time he should serve.
The prosecution in a written submission to Zagel last week referred to Blagojevich's "vast media campaign of disinformation," which featured repeated attacks on the government and misleading claims about how he was being barred from presenting evidence.
Blagojevich's lawyers also gave Zagel their own memorandum detailing why they think the former governor deserves to get off light. Ironically, the document could end up complicating things for Blagojevich by highlighting his continued "belief in his innocence," conviction or not.
That, legal experts say, is not what a sentencing judge wants to hear. "The absence of an apology speaks volumes," said retired U.S. District Judge Wayne Andersen, who sentenced many criminals. "If a judge is sitting there listening to a person who knows he is going to be sentenced and he doesn't apologize, that is almost bound to have an impact."
Former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins said the sentencing odds are already stacked against Blagojevich, and his only hope of persuading Zagel not to throw the book at him lies in brutally candid introspection.
"Any defendant who is seeking the mercy of the court needs to go deep within and think about how they can credibly and thoughtfully express remorse," said Collins, part of the team that secured the 2006 corruption conviction of Blagojevich's predecessor, former Gov. George Ryan.
That could prove tricky for Blagojevich to believably pull off, even if he sincerely wanted to, because as governor he was renowned for saying one thing and doing another.
Fair or not, the public has been conditioned not to expect much straight talk from politicians. But even relative to his peers, Blagojevich often seemed outrageous.
Once, Jesse White, Illinois' amiable secretary of state, grew so frustrated with what he considered double-dealing by Blagojevich that he publicly ripped the governor for failing to bargain in "good faith" and violating "all laws of human decency."
Fearing Blagojevich would go back on his word, lawmakers of both parties refused to cut budget deals with him unless he took the unprecedented step of committing promises to writing.
To Collins, another question of candor that could trip up Blagojevich at sentencing is his constant public posturing as a reformer dedicated to purging Illinois of the ethical stench left by Ryan. Prosecutors said Blagojevich participated in shakedowns that were under way even as Ryan was being tried and convicted.
Perhaps the biggest question hanging over the hearing is what message Blagojevich plans to convey when it is his turn to speak. Given the baggage he brings to the moment, Blagojevich faces an incredibly tough challenge to move Zagel personally.
Last week's defense brief nods to the dilemma, noting that Blagojevich's "belief in his innocence will doubtlessly be the basis for an argument from the government that he should be punished more severely because of what they would characterize as a failure to come to terms with his own misconduct." But his lawyers said Blagojevich had "an honest belief he was following the law."
Veteran criminal-defense attorney John Theis said he advises clients who have reached such a juncture to acknowledge "that you realize you've done something wrong."
One of the worst things, in Theis' view, is when defendants try to deflect responsibility for their plight onto others. But that is exactly what Blagojevich's lawyers suggested in last week's filing, portraying their client as putty in the hands of devious advisers.
"Mr. Blagojevich followed rather than led," the lawyers said of the twice-elected Illinois governor, claiming that advisers "poorly and improperly encouraged him, directed him, used him, lied to him, embarrassed him and led him into the morass of a 6-year investigation that resulted in the destruction of his life and career."
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