As he entered the Dirksen Federal Building Friday morning, Nick Blase briefly checked a speech he had prepared for the judge who would sentence him to prison. "I abused the trust of the people," Blase would later say. "I have been undone by my own greed."
For 47 years Blase was the mayor of Niles. A crimebuster, a builder, a benevolent boss -- much beloved. But he was also regarded by some as a tyrant who came to rule through fear. Three-and-a-half years ago came allegations that Blase -- for years -- had been taking kickbacks.
"Absolute lie. No truth to it at all," Blase said in 2006.
Blase would later plead guilty, and Friday, with dozens of family, friends and written testimonials, he went to be sentenced. Judge Wayne Andersen said, "This case is about money and a serious violation of the public trust," but he also acknowledged Blase's many good deeds and his failing health, saying "I do not want to see Nick Blase die in prison." Andersen then sentenced Blase to one year and a day behind bars.
"I think he should have gotten more time. I think the real Nick Blase was not in court today," said Jim Zimmerman, retired Niles police officer.
By his own admission, Blase took over $420,000 in kickbacks during a 10-year period. He has reimbursed the government, paid the taxes he had previously ignored, and has decided to give $250,000 to each of three school districts with students in Niles.
"It says that the man considers that he did something wrong. He's trying to make amends and he's trying to make amends to the children of Niles, and they would remember this somehow," said Robert Callero, Niles mayor.
"It's a significant step, and we asked that it be part of the judgment because it was obviously part of Judge Andersen's consideration," said Dan Collins, assistant US attorney.
Blase did not want to talk as he left court, though he did say in court that he hopes that giving $750,000 to cash-strapped school districts would be part of his legacy. "Maybe," he said, "some good will come of it."
The $750,000 payment, divided among Niles Elementary District 71, East Maine 63 and Park Ridge-Niles 64, was not part of any ordered restitution. It was voluntary and came about in discussions between Blase, his attorneys and the judge. It is unprecedented. The schools are thrilled. Some of Blase's critics, though, wonder about the wealth accumulated by a lawyer and long-time public servant.
Blase is tentatively scheduled to begin his prison sentence in early March. A year and a day will probably translate into 10 months.