By Jamey Dunn
Almost three years after his arrest on corruption charges, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was sentenced to 14 years behind bars today, but some say the work to clean up “pay to play politics” in the state is not done.
“The long Blagojevich nightmare is over,” Andy Shaw, director of the Better Government Association, said in Chicago after the sentence came down today.
While the sentence is shorter than the 15 to 20 years that prosecutors requested for Blagojevich's 18 felony convictions, it is the longest prison term ever doled out for corruption in the state. Blagojevich was reportedly contrite today when he addressed U.S. District Judge James Zagel, saying he was sorry and that he has no one to blame but himself. According to the Chicago-Sun Times, Zagel told Blagojevich, “When it is the governor who goes bad, the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily or quickly repaired.” Blagojevich is must surrender on February 16, 2012. Under federal guidelines, he is required to serve 85 percent, almost 12 years, of his sentence. He was also hit with almost $22,000 in fines and penalties.
However, after the sentencing, Blagojevich vowed to fight on. “This is a time to be strong. This is a time to fight through adversity. This is a time for me to be strong for our children, be strong for Patti,” he told reporters in Chicago. “We’re going to keep fighting on though this adversity, and we’ll see you soon.” Blagojevich dusted off one of his favorite literary works, quoting Rudyard Kipling’s If, a poem he has been citing in speeches for years.
“It’s profoundly sad that we are here for the second time in five years to discuss the conviction and sentencing of a governor of Illinois.” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said today in Chicago. He said the sentence should deter future corruption and that it “sends a strong message that the public has had enough and judges have had enough. This needs to stop.”
Fitzgerald said that an end to corruption in Illinois would come with a change in public sentiment. He said that “to some extent” people are “resigned to corruption.” He encouraged citizens to become whistleblowers and change the climate so that those who would seek money or personal benefit in exchange for a political act “should be afraid to ask.”
Lt. Gov. Shelia Simon said Blagojevich’s sentence does not ensure an end to political malfeasance in the state. "We cannot rely on a prison sentence to deter corruption,” Simon said in a prepared statement. “Illinois needs stronger ethics laws to kill pay-to-play politics. It's time we expose conflicts of interest before they cost taxpayers, and clear the way for true public servants to rebuild trust with the public. Increased transparency, coupled with the threat of serious prison time, can end these shameful courtroom battles. Together we can put this chapter behind us, restore integrity to government and live up to our legacy as the Land of Lincoln.” Simon, who served on an ethics commission that made recommendations to the General Assembly in the wake of Blagojevich’s impeachment and removal from office, said the former governor’s conviction and sentencing provide an opportunity to have “public conversation again” about ethics in the state.
Dick Simpson, a professor and head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois Chicago, agreed with Simon. “I don’t think that the sentence will be enough to deter corruption in the future.” He said that more recommendations from the ethics commission should be enacted. Simpson said that the job of cleaning up Illinois requires an educated public. “I think the most important single [recommendation to act on] would be to reintroduce into the public school system … both civics and the cost of corruption, and those are not taught in most schools anymore.”
He said students should be made aware of both the monetary costs of corruption as well as the human toll. “You can show examples of what happens when you can’t trust the policeman or you can’t trust the inspector and how it undermines trust in government and willingness to pay taxes. It’s not hard to put together a curriculum.”
He added, “Teaching political and civic engagement, rather than just the three branches of government, would be useful.”
He said that locking up offenders would never address the problem on a holistic level. “No amount of sentences would be sufficient. … Catching one crook at a time is not enough. It’s good that we punish people, but it isn’t sufficient.”
Gov. Pat Quinn called his predecessor’s sentence “stiff” but “necessary.” Quinn said there is “more work to do” to implement reforms, including enacting recommendations of the ethics commission. He renewed his call for a change to the state Constitution that would allow for citizens to put ethics measures on the ballot for a popular vote by collecting a enough voters’ signatures. Quinn said such initiatives, if passed, could apply to any level of government in the state. “We should not just have to rely on a legislature, or city councils or county boards [to pass ethics measures.]”
Quinn added, “We need to have a way for people to bypass the insiders to enact reforms that the people, the taxpayers, think are necessary.”
When asked about being Blagojevich’s running mate twice, Quinn said, “I think he let me down like he let down the people of Illinois.”
For more on the lack of civic education in Illinois schools, see Illinois Issues, September 2011.
For more on the history of political corruption in Illinois, see Illinois Issues Blog, December 2008.
For courtroom reporting on the sentencing, see the Chicago-Sun Times and the Chicago Tribune.