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Blagojevich gets 14 years in prison despite plea for mercy

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich left federal court a disgraced man, headed for 14 years in federal prison, convicted of 17 counts of bribery and attempted extortion. NBC's Ron Allen reports.

 

CHICAGO -- Rod Blagojevich, the ousted Illinois governor whose three-year battle against criminal charges became a spectacle, was sentenced to 14 years in prison Wednesday, a stiff penalty for the man convicted of trying to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat to raise campaign cash or land a high-paying job.

Judge James Zagel gave Blagojevich some credit for taking responsibility for his actions — which the former governor did in an address to the court earlier in the day — but said that didn't mitigate his crimes. Zagel also said Blagojevich did some good things for people as governor, but was more concerned about using his powers for himself.

"When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired," Zagel said.

As the judge announced the sentence, which includes a $20,000 fine, Blagojevich hunched forward and his face appeared frozen. Minutes later, his wife, Patti Blagojevich, stood up and fell into her husband's arms. He pulled back to brush tears off her cheek and then rubbed her shoulders.

On his way out of the courthouse, Blagojevich spoke briefly to reporters, quoting from the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling: "If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same."

"This is a time for me to be strong for my children and for (wife) Patti ... a time for Patti and me to explain to our kids what this means and where we go from here... See you soon," he said. He then left without answering any questions.

The twice-elected Democrat received by far the harshest sentence among the four Illinois governors sent to prison in the last four decades. He is the second in a row to go to prison; his Republican predecessor, George Ryan, currently is serving 6 1/2 years. The other two got three years or less.

Blagojevich, in a last plea for mercy, tried something he never had before: an apology. After years of insisting he was innocent, he told the judge he'd made "terrible mistakes" and acknowledged that he broke the law.

"I'm here convicted of crimes ... ," Blagojevich said, "and I am accepting of it, I acknowledge it and I of course am unbelievably sorry for it."

But Zagel gave him little leeway, telling him that he gave him credit for taking responsibility but that his apology didn't mitigate his crimes.

"Whatever good things you did for people as governor, and you did some, I am more concerned with the occasions when you wanted to use your powers when you wanted to do things that were only good for yourself."

Blagojevich's attorneys had said the sentence of 15 to 20 years prosecutors wanted was too harsh. The defense also presented heartfelt appeals from Blagojevich's family, including letters from his wife Patti and one of his two daughters that pleaded for mercy.

Former Ill. Gov. Rod Blagojevich is sentenced to 14 years in prison.

But the judge made it clear early in the hearing that he believed that Blagojevich had lied on the witness stand when he tried to explain his scheming for the Senate seat, and he did not believe defense suggestions that the former governor was duped by his advisers.

 Read local coverage of Blagojevich sentencing from NBC Chicago

"Rod Blagojevich's staff did not march him down the path of corruption," Zagel said during his sentencing. "He marched them."

The 54-year-old was not taken immediately into custody. His surrender date was set for Feb. 16. In white-collar cases, convicted felons are usually given at least a few weeks to report to prison while federal authorities select a suitable facility. Blagojevich is expected to appeal his conviction, but it is unlikely to affect when he reports to prison.

Most of the prisons where Blagojevich could end up are outside Illinois. One is in Terre Haute, Indiana, where Ryan is serving his own sentence. In prison, he'll largely be cut off from the outside world. Visits by family are strictly limited, Blagojevich will have to share a cell with other inmates and he must work an eight-hour-a-day menial job — possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors — at just 12 cents an hour.

According to federal rules, felons must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence a judge imposes — meaning Blagojevich wouldn't be eligible for early release until he serves nearly 12 years.

Going into the sentencing, many legal experts said the governor — who became a national punch line while doing several reality TV appearances while his legal case unfolded — was likely to get around 10 years. A former Blagojevich fundraiser, Tony Rezko, recently was sentenced to 10 1/2 years, minus time served, and many were confident the governor would get more.

Prosecutors have said Blagojevich misused the power of his office "from the very moment he became governor." He was initially elected in 2002 on a platform of cleaning up Illinois politics in the midst of federal investigations that led to the prosecution and conviction of Ryan.

"Blagojevich engaged in extensive criminal conduct with and without Rezko, provided no cooperation, perjured himself for seven days on the witness stand, and has accepted no responsibility for his criminal conduct," prosecutors said. And they said Blagojevich, who campaigned as a reformer, was "acutely aware of the damage" Ryan had created.

Defense attorneys have said he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, and propose a term of just a few years.

Blagojevich's sentencing came just days before his 55th birthday on Saturday, and nearly three years to the day of his arrest at dawn on Dec. 9, 2008, when the startled governor asked one federal agent, "Is this a joke?" In a state where corruption has been commonplace, images of Blagojevich being led away in handcuffs still came as a shock.

Blagojevich was impeached from the governor's office after being charged with racketeering, bribery, wire fraud and attempted extortion.

It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich on sweeping corruption charges. His first ended deadlocked with jurors 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 and attempted extortion.

FBI wiretap evidence proved decisive. In the most notorious recording, Blagojevich is heard crowing that his chance to name someone to Obama's seat was "f---ing golden" and he wouldn't let it go "for f---ing nothing."

NBC Chicago contributed to this story.

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