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Blagojevich to address sentencing judge today
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 making -- that he was, in fact, guilty of public corruption.
The former Illinois governor will get a chance to do the same today, when he is scheduled to address the judge who will decide his fate.
Judge James Zagel signaled Tuesday, however, that he may be prepared to impose a stiff prison sentence, saying he thinks Blagojevich lied when he told jurors that 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 when a letter from their daughter begged Zagel not to send him to prison.
The hearing was a stark contrast to the circus atmosphere around Blagojevich's trial 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 that he had been duped by aides but never intended to cross any lines into illegality.
Attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Zagel that it was illegal for Blagojevich to ask for a job for himself in exchange for his naming of the replacement.
"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.
But he said none of Blagojevich's actions merit the sentence recommended by prosecutors.
Blagojevich, who sat at a defense table in a dark pinstripe suit, was expected to address Zagel today.
Legal experts have said he needs to display some remorse.
At the hearing, Blagojevich wringed his hands and pulled nervously at his fingers -- pausing occasionally to sip on a plastic bottle of Cherry Coke.
As defense attorney Aaron 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 composer, fidgeting with a pen, biting on his lip. An attorney turned to gently pat his shoulder.
Zagel also seemed more engaged in what Goldstein was saying as he described Blagojevich -- the father. Blagojevich's wife Patti also began sobbing -- tears streaming down her cheeks, then dabbing her reddened face with a tissue.
Patti Blagojevich closed her eyes tight, tears still rolling down her face, when Goldstein played a tape recording of a giddy Blagojevich calling his youngest daughter and putting on a high, babylike voice, saying -- "Hey, Annie!"
Zagel, who has said he'll pronounce a sentence today, said earlier 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.
In comments that could signal a lengthy prison sentence, Zagel made it clear that 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 legal political deal.
"I think this is untrue," Zagel said. "I thought it was untrue when he said it and I think it is still untrue."
Goldstein pleaded with the judge not to impose a lengthy prison sentence -- not for his sake, but for 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 family.
Goldstein read a letter from Blagojevich's daughter, Amy, who 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, his wife asked Zagel to "please be merciful" and said the punishment her husband fears the most is not seeing his daughters grow up.
Rod Blagojevich has good reason to feel anxious. If Zagel settles on a sentence of more than a decade, that would be one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a tradition of crooked politics.
That history shouldn't count against Blagojevich, his attorney told the judge. Carolyn Gurland said it would be unfair to Blagojevich for Zagel to impose a tougher sentence because of officials previously sent to prison such as former governor George Ryan and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski.
"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 -- seeking campaign contributions, 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, Patti, ate a tarantula on the reality show, "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me ... 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