In laying a 14-year prison sentence on the mop-top head of impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Judge James Zagel talked about how the stakes are higher in political corruption cases "when it is the governor who goes bad."
If our state were a reality show, "Governors Gone Bad" wouldn't be a bad title. Blagojevich, our most recent guv-gone-bad, is scheduled to turn himself in for prison on Feb. 16. The guv-gone-bad before Blago, George Ryan, is eligible to be released from his political-corruption prison term on July 4, 2013.
Blagojevich's defense team argued that Ryan's crimes were much worse. Ryan accepted free vacations, had lots of cash without ever visiting an ATM and was part of a drivers license-selling plot that was uncovered when a fraudulent truck driver caused a traffic accident that killed six children in one family.
The societal cost and victims of Blagojevich aren't so obvious.
Zagel said Blagojevich's attempts to extort money from a children's hospital and sell a vacant U.S. Senate seat caused "the erosion of public trust in government." Blagojevich's two daughters and his wife are victims of the former governor's crimes in that they'll be deprived of the man they love for the rest of the girls' childhood. "My life is ruined," Blagojevich tells the judge. But there are more victims.
"I was a victim," says John Russell Ghrist, who was a simple public servant, living in Elgin and working for the Illinois Department of Transportation in Schaumburg when Blagojevich became governor. "I'm sorry for being so bitter. But Blago and his cronies ruined my life."
Ghrist, who still has the letters of recommendation and documents showing he was a valued employee, wrote daily media releases about road problems, construction projects and traffic woes caused by weather or accidents. Also working as a dispatcher, Ghrist was the "Voice of IDOT," recording traffic announcement for the low-powered radio stations along expressways. Blagojevich brought in political hires and forced Ghrist out of his $33,000-a-year job. Ghrist was let go just before he could celebrate his 20th anniversary as a state employee and qualify for free health insurance and a much larger pension.
Speaking by telephone before he hops in his 1995 Ford Taurus with 220,000 miles to drive to his volunteer gig hosting his Midwest Ballroom music show for a local radio station, the 62-year-old Ghrist lost his home to foreclosure and has struggled to keep his head above the poverty line.
"Maybe Blago didn't get any money for trying to sell that Senate seat, but there were people like me who lost their jobs and were replaced by political employees," says Ghrist, who adds that he would have liked the judge to add eight years to Blagojevich's prison sentence for the years of aggravation and heartache inflicted upon Ghrist.
The cost of corruption on the public level also hits home with longtime Blagojevich trial observer, Jason Welge, a suburban law school student with a unique take on the proceedings, having been mentored in his Benedictine University classes by the man Blagojevich defeated to become governor.
"I took classes from Jim Ryan, so the fact that I observed this trial is an enigma," says Welge, 26, who commutes to the trial and his new classes at The John Marshall Law School in spite of the wheelchair he requires because of his cerebral palsy. Clearly an admirer of Ryan's message about being good citizens, Welge understands the value of punishing politicians who break the law. But the frequent courtroom visitor also formed a relationship with the Blagojeviches. During a court recess in Blagojevich's sentencing, Patti Blagojevich stopped by Welge's wheelchair to congratulate him on getting into law school.
"They're real people," says Floyd Johnson, 74, a retired American Airlines pilot who was a courtroom regular. Admitting that he probably wouldn't have made the effort if not for "the ease of getting here on the Blago pass" that offered free public transportation rides for seniors, Johnson didn't let that perk prevent him from keeping an open mind.
Johnson formed a relationship with an eclectic and knowledgeable bunch, all of whom concluded Blagojevich was guilty and deserved some prison time.
"But when he talks to you, you feel like you are the only person in the world," says group member Dan Van Haften, 63, a retired engineer from Batavia, who cowrote the book "Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason," and has a new book out in January with the title, "Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln and the Structure of Reason."
"I'm here for the entertainment value," confesses Jack Gjeldum, 62, of Lindenhurst, who picked up the court-watching-in-retirement habit from his parents. While all the observers take home historic memories, Gjeldum, a former alderman and school board president in a southern suburb, also got a special souvenir from the Blagojevich trial as part of a school project for his young grandson, Jack.
"My grandson now has a picture of me, Flat Stanley and Rod," Gjeldum says, explaining how Blago gladly posed for the photo with a cardboard character from a kid's book. Blagojevich rose to power in part by knowing how to press the flesh, but he had flaws that brought him down.
"He's brilliant," Johnson concludes, "but at times, he just doesn't think."