CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich was clearly the ringleader of the schemes for which he was convicted, a federal judge said Tuesday at the sentencing hearing for the ousted Illinois governor on corruption charges that include trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel also said he believed there was ample evidence the former governor wanted $1.5 million in campaign contributions for the Senate seat. The judge's comments could signal a harsher sentence for Blagojevich.
Calling a defense suggestion "absurd" that Blagojevich was being manipulated by staffers and advisers, Zagel said that it was apparent from the secretly recorded tape recordings that Blagojevich relentlessly worked to use his authority to benefit himself.
"There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding," said Zagel, who added that he did not believe Blagojevich when he testified that he planned to name Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate. "His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions."
Blagojevich, who sat at a defense table in a dark pinstripe suit, was expected to address Zagel later in the day. Before proceedings began, he stood, rubbing his hands and occasionally biting his lip. His wife Patti sat behind him on a spectators' bench, and her brother put his arm around her. Blagojevich's two daughters were not present.
The impeached state executive-turned-reality TV star has good reason to feel anxious at the two-day hearing. He faces the prospect of 10 or more years behind bars. If Zagel settles on a sentence of more than a decade, that would make it one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a long history of crooked politics.
Prosecutors will ask Zagel to imprison the twice-elected governor for 15 to 20 years, arguing that he has not only shirked all responsibility for his crimes but repeatedly thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system.
Blagojevich has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, the defense argues in proposing a term of just a few years. They have also taken an approach judges often frown upon at the sentencing stage: Continuing to insist their client is innocent.
If Zagel accepts the contention by Blagojevich's attorneys that he was not trying to obtain a specific amount, it would reduce the amount of prison time. Prosecutors say Blagojevich was trying to shake down others for specific amounts — and punished those who did not give as much in campaign contributions as he demanded. They cite his delaying funding for a children's hospital when he did not receive as large a campaign contribution as he wanted.
Both sides could finish their pitches to Zagel during Tuesday's hearing, which was moved to a large ceremonial courtroom to accommodate expected crowds. Among the attendees were more than a dozen jurors from both trials, including both foremen. Zagel says he'll wait until Wednesday to pronounce a sentence.
The 70-year-old judge must answer nuanced questions according to complex sentencing considerations, including whether any good Blagojevich accomplished as governor counterbalances the bad.
Among those in attendance at court was Sister Susanne Kullowitch, 78, who said she believed Blagojevich deserved mercy, noting the good she said he had done as governor for the elderly.
"I was here to tell the governor I was praying for him," she said during a break, clutching a cane. She said she went up to Blagojevich before proceedings began, and she said he responded, 'Keep praying."
Legal experts have said Blagojevich needs to display some remorse when he addresses Zagel. But the big unknown is whether the often cocksure ex-governor will beg for mercy or yet again protest his innocence.
A flat-out apology isn't always considered a must. If it isn't sincere, it could only anger a judge.