A building contractor who says a seductive but unsavory world of the rich and the powerful in Illinois led him astray was sentenced Wednesday to just more than two years behind bars -- in what was a last piece of unfinished business from the investigation of imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Jacob Kiferbaum, 61, admitted he and others with links to Blagojevich threatened to deny state permission for Naperville-based Edward Hospital's expansion unless it hired Kiferbaum's firm. A 2003 investigation into the scheme triggered a series of investigations that eventually toppled dozens of power brokers, including Blagojevich.
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U.S. District Judge John F. Grady told the Chicago courtroom Wednesday that he had to determine a prison term that would serve as a deterrent in a state with such a long, ignominious history of corruption.
"We live in a state that unfortunately is afflicted by political corruption. ... It's been that way as long as most of us can remember," the 84-year-old judge said. "We keep hoping things are going to change."
Minutes before, a tearful Kiferbaum apologized for the humiliation and anguish his prosecution caused his wife and two sons, saying, "I will never forgive myself for what I have done to my family." Relatives on a nearby bench wiped away tears.
The Israel-born Kiferbaum, the son of Holocaust survivors, said he also apologized to his adopted country, the United States, "which has done so much for me and my family."
Kiferbaum, who also has to pay $7 million in restitution, was ordered to report to prison on Oct. 15. The judge gave Kiferbaum permission to travel to Israel before then to visit his ailing 87-year-old mother.
Kiferbaum pleaded guilty in 2005 to attempted extortion in a deal that called for a prison term of around two years. His sentencing was delayed for eight years in case prosecutors needed to call him to testify. But because so many of the government targets signed plea agreements, Kiferbaum never took the stand.
In court Wednesday, prosecutor Kaarina Salovaara praised Kiferbaum, saying he promptly admitted to wrongdoing after being confronted by authorities in 2004.
Defense attorneys say Kiferbaum's cooperation set off a series of events that enabled the feds to arrest Blagojevich in 2008. The Chicago Democrat is serving a 14-year prison term in Colorado for multiple corruption convictions, including his attempt to trade or sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
At 18, Kiferbaum served in the Israeli army and was injured during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. When he immigrated to the U.S., he spoke no English and had just $72 in his pocket; his first job was as a shoe salesman, defense filings say.
Before Wednesday, Kiferbaum wrote a six-page letter to Grady, saying his decline began after he built Kiferbaum Construction into a profitable business.
"I didn't know how to handle that success (in) the world of the rich, powerful and influential people I found myself in," he said. "I lost my moral compass and couldn't properly guide myself in that environment that was worlds away from where and what I had come from."
Kiferbaum laid much of the blame on former associate Stuart Levine, an influential state board member. Kiferbaum described being awed by Levine when he met him in 2001.
"I wanted to be someone of such stature (as Levine)," Kiferbaum wrote. "The truth is that I was in way over my head with the company I was keeping."
Levine, an admitted swindler and longtime drug addict who went on to serve as a key government witness, was sentenced last year to a 5½-year prison term for money laundering and fraud in the tens of millions of dollars.
On Wednesday, Kiferbaum attorney James Streiker portrayed Kiferbaum as one of Levin's victims.
"He's a big boy -- but he got pulled into this by Stuart Levine," Streiker said. "He really became intoxicated with what Mr. Levine was doing."
Grady said he didn't fully accept Kiferbaum's contention that it was status, not greed, that drove his involvement in the criminal exploit. But the judge said Kiferbaum seemed genuinely anguished over what he had done, accepting that Kiferbaum's life was otherwise exemplary.
"It is, indeed, an aberration that he is here at all," Grady said.