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Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Released Following Trump's Commutation

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich departs his Chicago home in 2012. On Tuesday, Trump commuted the 14-year sentence of Blagojevich, who has been serving a prison term after being convicted on corruption charges.
Charles Rex Arbogast
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich departs his Chicago home in 2012. On Tuesday, Trump commuted the 14-year sentence of Blagojevich, who has been serving a prison term after being convicted on corruption charges.

Updated at 8:43 p.m. ET

Ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was released from federal prison Tuesday evening following a commutation earlier in the day from President Trump that cut short his punishment on corruption charges over his attempt to sell the Senate seat vacated by then-President Barack Obama.

The White House announced that Blagojevich is among 11 people who received clemency.

Those individuals include Edward DeBartolo Jr., the former San Francisco 49ers owner convicted in a gambling fraud scandal; convicted Wall Street financier Michael Milken, who became known as the "junk bond king"; and Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner who pleaded guilty in 2009 to tax fraud and lying to federal officials.

"Oftentimes, pretty much all the time, I really rely on the recommendations of people who know them," Trump told reporters.

For years, Blagojevich's family and allies have been attempting to persuade the White House to intervene in the case after exhausting all legal appeals. His wife, Patti, has made repeated pleas on Fox News and other national outlets.

In a statement, the White House said Blagojevich has exhibited "exemplary character" during his eight years in prison.

"He tutors and teaches GED classes, mentors prisoners regarding personal and professional development, and speaks to them about their civic duties," the statement said.

A 2016 court filing from Blagojevich's lawyers noted that the former Illinois governor studied guitar and vocals with another federal inmate and they formed a band called "The Jailhouse Rockers."

The legal memo also noted he taught other inmates Civil War history.

Such prison behavior helped pave the way for his commutation, said Aaron Goldstein, one of Blagojevich's lawyers during the corruption trials.

"To this day, if you look at what goes on in the state of Illinois and throughout the country, the bribery that happens every day, it is a bit of a headscratcher a) that he was convicted on so many counts and b) that he was sentenced so significantly."

Others criticized Trump's move, including Republicans in Illinois.

"In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety," said Tim Schneider, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party.

The move freed Blagojevich from prison four years before his scheduled release date. The commutation will keep his corruption convictions in place.

Blagojevich, once seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party, was a contestant on Trump's former reality show The Celebrity Apprentice.

Trump has made sympathetic comments about Blagojevich in the past, having said publicly multiple times that Blagojevich's sentence was unfair.

Blagojevich, Trump said in 2018, was convicted for "being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say."

Among the evidence federal prosecutors gathered on Blagojevich was his now-famous profanity on a phone call, secretly recorded by the FBI, about his attempt to profit from Obama's vacated Illinois Senate seat.

"I've got this thing, and it's f****** golden," Blagojevich said in the wiretapped call. "And I'm not just giving it up for f****** nothing."

"They don't sound good by any means," Goldstein, his former lawyer, said on Tuesday of the the comments on the recorded call.

Yet Goldstein continued to defend the blunt statements from his former client.

"Blagojevich, whether you want to call it stupidity or hubris or what, said those words that many, many people think to themselves," Goldstein said.

A U.S. appeals court in 2015 threw out five of Blagojevich's extortion convictions but the court described the evidence against him, "much of it from Blagojevich's own mouth" as "overwhelming."

The team that prosecuted Blagojevich reacted to the news of his commutation, saying in a statement to WBEZ that extortion by a public official is a "very serious crime."

"While the President has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich's sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account," the prosecution team said.

Blagojevich, 63, has been serving a 14-year prison sentence since 2012, and he would be eligible for release in 2024.

In 2010, after Blagojevich was removed as governor of Illinois over the corruption scandal, he appeared on Apprentice, where Trump fired Blagojevich before saying, "I feel badly for him. He tried, but I feel badly."

A jury convicted Blagojevich in 2010 on one count of lying to FBI agents and was unable to reach a consensus on 23 other charges. But in 2011, another jury convicted him on 17 counts, including 10 counts of wire fraud and one count of soliciting bribes.

A judge sentenced him to 14 years in federal prison.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 17, 2020 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story incorrectly said that President Trump's commutation would clear Rod Blagojevich's convictions. Because he was not pardoned, his convictions will remain on record.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
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