Blagojevich is out of prison, back home; ex-Naperville hospital CEO calls commutation 'appalling'
Disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is out of federal prison after President Donald Trump on Tuesday commuted his sentence, telling reporters the 14-year prison term was "ridiculous."
"Yes, we commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich," Trump told reporters just before boarding Air Force One for a campaign trip to the west coast. "He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don't know him."
The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed that as of 7:24 p.m. Central Tuesday, Blagojevich was no longer in their custody. Then he was seen in Denver International Airport, where he soon boarded a flight to Chicago.
After landing at O'Hare shortly before midnight Tuesday, Blagojevich spoke with WGN Channel 9 as he walked down the United concourse.
"It's great to be home. There's no place like home," he said.
Blagojevich confirmed that he had spoken to his family, including wife, Patti. "Patti's the best person I've ever known. I'm blessed," he said.
In Denver, he thanked the president and proclaimed his innocence.
"I'm profoundly grateful to President Trump, and it's a profound and everlasting gratitude," Blagojevich told WGN. "He didn't have to do this; he's a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor. I'll have a lot more to say tomorrow."
A news conference is scheduled at 11 a.m. Wednesday at their Chicago home.
Blagojevich was accused of putting the former U.S. Senate seat of Barack Obama up for sale, soliciting campaign donations from Maywood Park horse-racing track owner John Johnston in exchange for legislation benefiting the racing industry, and trying to extort former Edward Hospital CEO Pam Davis.
The former governor said in Denver he "followed the law every step of the way."
"I've said that all along, and that's absolutely the case, and they're the ones who did wrong and I think eventually the truth will win out, and the Bible teaches that," ABC 7 Chicago reported him saying.
"I'm going to fight against the corrupt criminal justice system that all too often persecutes and prosecutes people who did nothing wrong, who over-sentences people, show no mercy, and who are in positions who have no accountability," Blagojevich said. "They can do whatever they want. They can put you into prison for things that aren't crimes."
The bureau earlier would not say when or how Blagojevich would be released from the Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Colorado, saying release plans are not discussed for safety and security reasons.
"My first thought was, 'I wonder if I have time to get a run in,'" Blagojevich said, according to ABC 7.
In 2010, a jury agreed only that he lied to the FBI but deadlocked on the other charges, prompting a retrial. After nine days of deliberations in June 2011, jurors found Blagojevich guilty of 18 counts. A judge sentenced him to 14 years in prison that December, and he reported the following March. An appellate court in 2015 overturned five of those counts, particularly targeting the prosecution of the Senate seat scheme, but the court's affirmation of the other charges still justified the sentence, it said.
Davis described Trump's decision as "appalling and frightening." The head of the Naperville hospital wore a wire to provide evidence of a shakedown scheme against Edward that led to convictions of Blagojevich confederates and helped build the federal case against the governor.
Now retired, she said both Trump and Blagojevich "totally abused the power entrusted to each of them."
"I recognize it was a long sentence," Davis said. "One of the reasons it was a long sentence is that (Blagojevich) never took individual responsibility for what he had done."
Trump had donated twice to Blagojevich's campaign. He questioned and fired the former governor from "The Celebrity Apprentice" on the eve of his trial in 2010, telling him, "You have a hell of a lot of guts."
Trump's action Tuesday shook Illinois Republicans.
"I guess he's not concerned about the state of Illinois for next November," House Republican Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs said, referring to the general election.
"I'm never going to be able to figure out how the president messages, nor the decision making that he does," Durkin said. "That's something he's going to have to explain, but I think he needs to explain to the people of Illinois who saw a governor destroy the integrity of this office but also did some very, very terrible things to the finances of this state."
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker also criticized the commutation o n Tuesday.
"Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated," he said in a statement. "President Donald Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time."
In 2017, an appeals court in Chicago took just three days to reject a request from Blagojevich for a new sentencing hearing, agreeing his 14-year prison term for corruption was a stiff punishment but saying it was well within the sentencing judge's discretion.
The U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up a Blagojevich appeal, leaving few options beyond an appeal to Trump.
Commutation reduces the sentence for a crime but does not eliminate the conviction.
The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission is moving to permanently take away Blagojevich's law license. A hearing previously scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 25, in Chicago "will go forward as scheduled," commission spokesman Steve Splitt said.
Davis' involvement began in 2003 when construction executive Jacob Kiferbaum approached her regarding Edward's plan to build a $218 million hospital in Plainfield. If Davis hired his company and a politically connected financing firm, Kiferbaum promised, the then-Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, appointed by Blagojevich, would approve the Plainfield project.
Health board member Stuart Levine, Kiferbaum and their confederate Tony Rezko, a Blagojevich fundraiser, all were convicted on corruption charges in relation to the Edward Hospital shakedown. Edward never received approval for the hospital.
The three trials served as opening acts for the main event involving the governor, although the Edward issue did not surface in the Blagojevich case.
"I think the most egregious piece was his interfering with health care," Davis said. "For anyone to do that is unconscionable and unethical ... taking away someone's right to lifesaving treatment. He never thought about that."
Former Blagojevich attorney Sam Adam Jr. described the commutation announcement as "heartwarming," adding that he never believed his client's actions amounted to criminal behavior.
"I couldn't be happier," Adam said. "I'm ecstatic ... to put a family back together on a case which in my humble opinion didn't call for a 14-year sentence."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has supported a shorter sentence for the ex-governor.
"Former Gov. Blagojevich betrayed the people of Illinois and engaged in a pattern of corrupt behavior for which he was held accountable and which cost him more than seven years of freedom," Durbin said.
Trump had given Blagojevich $7,000 in campaign donations over the years. He called it a "tragedy" in 2011 when Blagojevich got the federal prison sentence.
Could Blagojevich, a former congressman and state representative, run for office again?
When the General Assembly impeached and removed him from office in 2009, it also unanimously voted to bar him from holding public office again in Illinois. But he could run for federal office again, including U.S. Congress, because there's no constitutional provision saying a conviction disqualifies a person from it.
• Daily Herald staff reporter Barbara Vitello, The Associated Press and Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report.