Who was that guy with Blagojevich? Ex-St. Charles resident helped secure his release

  • Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, with Mark Vargas at his left in clear eyeglasses, makes his way through a crowd after his news conference at his Chicago home Wednesday, a day after getting out of prison through a commutation by President Donald Trump.

      Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, with Mark Vargas at his left in clear eyeglasses, makes his way through a crowd after his news conference at his Chicago home Wednesday, a day after getting out of prison through a commutation by President Donald Trump. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comRod Blagojevich family spokesman Mark Vargas, formerly of St. Charles, attends a news conference after he had advocated for the former governor's release from prison.

    Mark Welsh/mwelsh@dailyherald.comRod Blagojevich family spokesman Mark Vargas, formerly of St. Charles, attends a news conference after he had advocated for the former governor's release from prison.

 
 
Updated 2/20/2020 8:20 AM

In the midst of a freewheeling news conference Wednesday, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich took a moment to thank a "mystery man."

"He's quite a guy. ... He's the kind of guy who can get you out of prison if you find yourself stuck there," Blagojevich said after President Donald Trump's commutation of his 14-year prison sentence on corruption charges.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The "mystery man" who flew home with the Chicago Democrat Tuesday from prison in Colorado was former St. Charles resident and Judson College alumnus Mark Vargas.

"It's been very surreal" is how Vargas, a Blagojevich family friend and adviser, described the previous 24 hours. "It's still a blur right now."

On Tuesday, political strategist Vargas was in Washington when Blagojevich's wife, Patti, called him with the news.

"I said, 'All right ... I've got to catch the next flight to Denver,'" he said.

The timing was a surprise, but the decision wasn't. Vargas became acquainted with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner after writing some op-ed pieces on criminal justice reform for the Washington Examiner.

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"We had a strong advocate in Jared. ... He's been very supportive of the governor's release from prison," Vargas said.

But the president also knew Blagojevich from his 2010 stint on Trump's reality TV show "The Celebrity Apprentice" and was highly critical of his sentence, Vargas said.

"We knew we were on the radar," he said.

Vargas thought Blagojevich's 2011 sentence was "outrageous" and contacted Patti after the U.S. Supreme Court denied a second appeal in 2018.

"I didn't know Rod or Patti beforehand, but I reached out and said I wanted to help."

Since then, he's become close to the family, including Rod Blagojevich, through myriad emails.

When they met in person Tuesday night at Englewood Federal Correctional Institution, "he said, 'Mark?'" Vargas recounted. "I said, 'Governor ... it's great to meet you.' It felt like we'd known each other for 100 years."

It's not Vargas' first brush with high-profile figures. He interned for former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, became acquainted with retired Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq working for the Department of Defense from 2008 to 2010, and accompanied former Mexican President Vincente Fox on a tour of the U.S. in 2016.

Asked what's next for Blagojevich, who was defiant about his conviction and appeared to be in campaign mode Wednesday, Vargas said Blagojevich is interested in criminal justice reforms. But "his No. 1 priority is just to enjoy being home and being husband to Patti and father to his two girls."

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