CHICAGO (CN) – At oral arguments Tuesday, disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich asked the Seventh Circuit to vacate his 14-year sentence because it did not take into account his rehabilitation efforts.
In 2011, a federal jury found Blagojevich guilty of 17 out of 20 federal corruption charges, including trying to sell former President Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced him to 14 years in prison, a below-guidelines sentence.
On his first appeal, the Seventh Circuit threw out five counts against Blagojevich, including those involving Obama’s Senate seat, because the jury instructions were misleading.
The law sets a higher bar to prove corruption charges against a politician when the proposed “bribe” is a public action – like an appointment to the cabinet – rather than a private payment, but this was not clear in the jury instructions.
“A jury could have found that Blagojevich asked the President-elect for a private-sector job, or for funds that he could control, but the instructions permitted the jury to convict even if it found that his only request of Sen. Obama was for a position in the Cabinet,” Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote in the unanimous 2015 opinion.
Zagel again sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years in prison, which would put his release date at May 2024.
On a second appeal, the former governor asked the Seventh Circuit on Tuesday to vacate the sentence, arguing that Zagel was required to consider the many letters sent by inmates testifying as to Blagojevich’s changed character.
“The crimes before the court are different, and the man before the court is different” than the man first accused of trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat, Blagojevich’s attorney Michael Nash told a Seventh Circuit panel Tuesday.
Judge Illana Rovner acknowledged, “I would grant that Blagojevich has conducted himself admirably,” but questioned whether his good behavior rendered the sentence unfair.
Attorney Leonard Goodman, also representing the former governor, separately asked the court to revisit its prior opinion and find that the inaccurate jury instructions tainted all the charges against the Blagojevich, entitling him to a new trial. If granted, it would be Blagojevich’s third trial, after his first ended with a hung jury.
The government, represented by Debra Bonamici, cast doubt on Blagojevich’s purported transformation in prison.
“The letters did not show such extraordinary rehabilitation as to warrant a two-thirds sentence reduction, as requested,” Bonamici said.
She reminded the court that Blagojevich apologized for his “mistakes,” but never specifically took responsibility for the crimes for which he was convicted.
“He has not addressed the harm he caused,” Bonamici said, “or apologized for putting his personal interests ahead of those of the public.”
The panel, comprised of Rovner and Judges Michael Kanne and Frank Easterbrook, asked almost no questions during the arguments, and allowed the attorneys to present their arguments with minimal interruption.
Judge Rovner asked Bonamici if she saw a difference between a politician who receives compensation for a favor in the form of a campaign donation and one who accepts a personal benefit.
She noted, “Politicians are under constant pressure to raise campaign funds.”
But Bonamici argued that there is no difference, especially in Blagojevich’s case, where he explicitly used his campaign funds to pay personal litigation expenses.
It is unclear when the Seventh Circuit will issue a decision in the case.