2014 Prediction: A 'Get Out of Jail' Card for Rod Blagojevich

January 3, 2014 - 3:57 PM

Here's my New Year's prediction: Former Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich will only serve a fraction of his 14-year sentence.

After two headline-grabbing trials in Chicago, Blagojevich was convicted on 18 counts of political corruption, including trying to sell Barack Obama's old Senate seat, and was sent to a federal prison in Colorado 21 months ago. But Blagojevich probably won't do all 14 years of his time, even though he admitted to making "terrible mistakes" in a non-specific "apology" in which he also claimed that he "never set out to break the law."

Early release should be unthinkable for such a high-level public official who committed what former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called "a political corruption crime spree" that "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave." But that's where the tea leaves are pointing, and if Blagojevich gets his "Get Out of Jail" card from the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Fitzgerald himself will be largely to blame.

In fact, Fitzgerald, now in private practice, made such a mess of the case that it would actually be more surprising if Blagojevich doesn't walk out of federal prison sooner rather than later.

After a highly-publicized multi-year, multi-million-dollar investigation into political corruption in Chicago, Fitzgerald's team supposedly had Blagojevich just where they wanted him. The Democratic governor had been caught on an FBI wiretap crowing that supporters of former Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) had offered him "tangible, concrete, tangible stuff" in exchange for appointing Jackson to Obama's Senate seat and that he planned to meet with the Chicago congressman personally, presumably to seal the deal.

On Dec. 5, 2008, Blagojevich's brother, Robert, also had plans to meet with Raghuveer Nayak, a wealthy supporter and fundraiser for Jackson, who allegedly promised the governor $6 million in campaign donations if Jackson got the seat.

However, at 10:30 pm the evening before Robert Blagojevich was supposed to meet with Nayak, Chicago Tribune reporter John Chase - who had been tipped off that Blagojevich was being wiretapped two months earlier - suddenly called the governor's press team for a "comment" on the ongoing federal probe.

The meeting with Nayak was abruptly cancelled. Rod Blagojevich was arrested four days later without any money changing hands.

But Fitzgerald - who put New York Times reporter Judith Miller in jail for nearly three months for refusing to reveal a source in the Valerie Plame case - was surprisingly uninterested in the damaging leak to the Tribune.

Even more surprising, at a press conference following Blagojevich's second trial, Fitzgerald himself admitted that the leak could have come from his own office, which one Chicago pundit likened to "tackling his own receiver on the one-yard line." But he did nothing, even though the leak torpedoed the biggest case of his career and only a handful of people could have been responsible.

Furthermore, neither Chase nor Nayak were ever called to testify under oath in Blagojevich's first or second trial, leaving Fitzgerald to rely on circumstantial evidence instead of open-and-shut proof that Blagojevich had indeed tried to sell Obama's Senate seat to Jackson.

The point was not lost on appellate attorney Len Goodman, nephew of Chicago mogul Lester Crown, who argued earlier this month that the former governor was simply engaging in the age-old political art of "horse-trading," and that Fitzgerald never presented any proof that a bribe from Nayak or anybody else was ever "accepted, negotiated or even entertained" by Blagojevich.

It was not lost on Appellate Judge Frank Easterbrook either. During oral arguments, Easterbrook asked how the former Illinois governor's machinations were any different than a 1952 deal between President Dwight Eisenhower and former California Gov. Earl Warren in which Ike promised Warren a seat on the Supreme Court if he delivered California's electoral votes.

Goodman also told the three-judge panel that Blagojevich "was literally left on the stand with no defense" after U.S. District Court James Zagel refused to let Blagojevich play FBI tapes of his conversations regarding the open Senate seat with various political figures and union leaders.

Conspicuously missing from the discussion was another plea to release the court-sealed tapes that the disgraced governor's attorneys had previously insisted were critical to his defense. If Blagojevich was merely involved in innocent political "horse-trading," why shouldn't the public be allowed to hear the tapes as well?

Another sign that Blagojevich will soon be released was Patti Blagojevich's public lament that "there isn't a day that goes by that my daughters and I don't feel the emptiness of the absence of my husband. We've just gone through our second Thanksgiving, coming up on our second Christmas without him."

That's true for anybody with an incarcerated loved one, but as the eldest daughter of former ward boss Richard Mell, and the sister of 33rd Ward Ald. Deborah Mell, the former Illinois first lady is not just anybody. She knows when to keep her mouth shut - and when to send a message that her political family knows a lot about a lot of prominent people who did business with the former governor.

So the tea leaves are all lined up in one direction: Blagojevich will walk. And when he does, so will Fitzgerald's undeserved reputation as a modern day, corruption-busting Eliot Ness.