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Supreme Court Doesn't Want to Hear Imprisoned Ex-Gov. Blagojevich's Appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will not hear former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appeal, marking the end of a decadelong legal road and virtually guaranteeing he will remain in prison until 2024 barring a presidential pardon or commutation.

By Jason Meisner

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday it will not hear former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's appeal, marking the end of a decadelong legal road and virtually guaranteeing he will remain in prison until 2024 barring a presidential pardon or commutation.

The justices did not comment in letting stand the convictions and 14-year prison term that Blagojevich is serving. It marked the second time in two years that the high court has rejected hearing Blagojevich's appeal.

Blagojevich's lawyers had hoped the Supreme Court would take up his case to make clear what constitutes illegal political fundraising. They argued that politicians are vulnerable to prosecution because the line between what's allowed and what's illegal is blurry.

His convictions included trying to extort a children's hospital for contributions and seeking cash in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he was elected president in 2008.

With his legal options exhausted, Blagojevich's best hope for a reprieve at this point would be a pardon or commutation of his sentence from President Donald Trump, who had a friendly relationship with the ex-governor when he appeared on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" reality show in 2010.

After Blagojevich was convicted a year later, Trump told Forbes magazine that he "felt bad for him and his family."

"It's a tragedy," Trump said at the time. "It just seemed like he was in over his head, you know what I mean?"

Blagojevich, now 61, is still slated to remain in prison until May 2024, prison records show.

In an emailed statement Monday, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, said the family "could not be more disappointed" in the Supreme Court's decision and hinted at the possibility of intervention from the White House.

"From the beginning, we've had faith in the system and have felt the court would bring Rod back to us," she said. "Now, with the judiciary no longer an option, we'll have to put our faith elsewhere and find another way. ... We will continue to push forward and work towards the day when our family can be whole again."

Blagojevich was still in office when he was arrested at his home early one morning in December 2008 on charges of misusing his powers as governor in an array of wrongdoing. Blagojevich was convicted in 2011 on 17 counts related to the attempted Senate seat sale and fundraising shakedowns of a hospital executive and a racetrack owner. Less than a year earlier, an initial trial ended with a jury deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI, forcing the retrial.

In Blagojevich's first appeal in 2015, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago threw out five counts involving the Senate seat on technical grounds. But the court tempered the small victory for Blagojevich by calling the evidence against him overwhelming and making it clear that the original sentence was not out of bounds.

That set up a resentencing hearing in August 2016 that focused largely on Blagojevich's purported rehabilitation in prison, where he teaches history and counsels inmates and even served as lead singer in a prison band, The Jailhouse Rockers. Both of Blagojevich's daughters gave impassioned pleas for mercy, and Blagojevich himself apologized for his "mistakes" without specifically mentioning the crimes for which he was convicted.

"I recognize it was my actions and my words that led me here," Blagojevich said in a soft voice from a conference room in the federal prison outside Denver. "This can be a beginning to make amends for the past."

However, U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who imposed the original sentence, resentenced Blagojevich to the same 14-year prison term.

Blagojevich's attorney, Leonard Goodman, has long argued that Blagojevich was the victim of overreach by prosecutors whose interpretation of the law essentially criminalized political horse trading and campaign fundraising.

Goodman said Monday that by declining to hear Blagojevich's case, the Supreme Court "decided not to correct a dangerous conflict in the law that makes it incredibly easy for federal prosecutors in Midwest cities like Chicago to jail elected officials, while prosecutors on the coasts have a much higher burden."

"Rod Blagojevich never sought a bribe or a kickback; he never took a penny from his campaign fund; he never promised anything to any donor in exchange for a campaign donation," Goodman wrote in an email. "Yet he is serving one of the longest prison sentences ever handed down to an elected official."

(c)2018 the Chicago Tribune

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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