Illinois Ex-Gov.Rod Blagojevich released from prison hours after Donald Trump commutes prison sentence, returns to Chicago overnight

ByABC7 Eyewitness News Team Coverage WLS logo
Thursday, February 20, 2020
Rod Blagojevich released from prison after Trump commutes sentence, returns to Chicago
Rod Blagojevich has been released from prison hours after President Donald Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence, and is flying home to Chicago.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been released from prison hours after President Donald Trump commuted his 14-year prison sentence Tuesday. The 63-year-old has been locked up for more than seven years at the Federal Correctional Institution-Englewood south of Denver, Colorado.

Blagojevich caught a flight home to Chicago out of Denver around 8:30 p.m. Central Time, and spoke to reporters as he prepared to board the plane. He said he didn't have advanced warning of Trump's decision; instead, he found out through the news like everyone else.

"My first thought was, 'I wonder if I'll have time to get a run in,' believe it or not," Blagojevich said. "Because you get programmed, you have routines and I found that it helps through this time when you discipline yourself every day and you have something to work for, it helps you do it. And so I had a run planned and I think, I wonder if I'll get that in before I go. And there was this helicopter over the prison so I thought well, maybe I won't run, so I went and did push-ups."

Rod Blagojevich speaks at the Denver Airport following his release from prison, hours after his sentence was commuted by President Trump.

Blagojevich did not express any contrition for the actions that landed him in prison. He was convicted on 18 counts related to the attempted sale of Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat, and the fundraising shakedowns of a children's hospital executive and a racetrack owner. About a year earlier, the impeached governor's initial criminal trial ended with a jury deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI, forcing a retrial.

Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich flies home to Chicago Tuesday night, and ABC7's Chuck Goudie is next to him in the window seat.

"I followed the law every step of the way," he said Tuesday night. "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."

"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, wand 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."

"I've been blessed to have a chance to be governor in a great state like Illinois and represent people, to fight for them, and yet, I've made a whole bunch of mistakes but I didn't break any laws," said Blagojevich before he boarded the plane. "I crossed no lines. And the things I talked about doing were legal and this was routine politics and the ones who did it are the ones who broke the laws and the ones who frankly should meet and face some accountability."

His wife, Patti Blagojevich, announced there would be a homecoming press conference at her home in Chicago Wednesday morning at 11 a.m.

RELATED: Patti Blagojevich in Chicago awaiting husband's prison release

Trump spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon before he boarded Air Force One, calling Blagojevich's sentence "ridiculous."

President Donald Trump commuted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's prison sentence tuesday. He was released from prison hours later.

CLICK HERE to read the Executive Grand of Clemency

"We have commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich," Trump said. "He served eight years in jail - a long time... I don't know him very well, I've met him a couple of times. He was on for a short while on 'The Apprentice' years ago."

Trump noted that Blagojevich is a Democrat and that "many people disagree with the sentence."

WATCH: Trump confirms commutation of Rod Blagojevich prison sentence

President Donald Trump has commuted the sentence of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"There was a prosecution by the same people - Comey, Fitzpatrick, the same group," Trump said.

President Trump appeared to be referring to former FBI Director James Comey and former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois Pat Fitzgerald. Comey was not the director of the FBI at time of the Blagojevich investigation.

VIDEO: Shirtless Rod Blagojevich works out in Colorado prison yard

Former Governor Rod Blagojevich was seen on video exercising in the prison yard Sunday in Littleton, Colorado.

"He's very far from his children, they're growing older, they're going to high school now," Trump said. "They don't get to see their father outside of an orange uniform. I saw that and I did commute his sentence. So he'll be able to go back home with his family after serving eight years in jail. That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion and in the opinion of many others."

RELATED: A commutation, not a pardon: What's next for Rod Blagojevich?

Because Trump issued a commutation and not a pardon, Blagojevich will still have to serve two years supervised release and fulfill any further components of his sentence, including paying any unpaid balance of the $20,000 fine imposed on him.

RELATED: Four Illinois governors have served time

Talk of clemency for Blagojevich had been brewing since the convicted governor lost his final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in April 2018. Former Illinois First Lady Patti Blagojevich had been waging a public relations campaign, appearing frequently on Fox News in apparent hope that President Trump would hear her cries for clemency.

In June of 2018, the possibility gained traction when Trump mentioned that he was considering such a move.

In a statement, members of the Blagojevich federal prosecution team said, "While the President has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich's sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to service will be held to account."

WATCH: Timeline of Rod Blagojevich corruption case

A full timeline of the Rod Blagojevich case, from indictment to conviction to commutation.

Attorney Lauren Kaeseberg, who represented Blagojevich during his trials and appeal, said she was elated by the news and called the president's action "the right thing to do."

Blagojevich and Trump do have history. Trump hosted Blagojevich on his "Celebrity Apprentice" TV show in 2010.

In a separate, and now unnecessary procedure, Blagojevich's attorneys filed paperwork with the Department of Justice asking for a sentence commutation. That official method can take years and usually doesn't end well for applicants. In the case of executive clemency by a president, there are no rules or regulations as to how it is carried out or who receives White House mercy.

RELATED: Rod Blagojevich: Trump 'very strongly' considering commuting prison sentence

President Donald Trump has suggested he may commute the prison sentence of disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.


Illinois Republicans and Democrats don't often agree, but Tuesday they were united in their disappointment that President Trump commuted Blagojevich's sentence.

Blagojevich was impeached and removed from office 11 years ago, leaving Springfield in disgrace. Now his commutation is drawing widespread scorn.

"It's very disappointing," said House Republican Leader Jim Durkin. "Currently we have a massive federal investigation into corruption in the state of Illinois and this action distracts and also dilutes what I think is the proper role of the Department of Justice to root out corruption."

"A corrupt president pardoning or commuting a corrupt official. It's a sad day," said Democratic State Senator Christina Castro, who represents the northwest suburbs.

"It would be a lot easier to stomach if the former governor had shown any contrition at any point along the way," said State Senate President Don Harmon.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was in Springfield for meetings with legislators, reacted to the news with some surprise and skepticism.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot spoke in Springfield, answering questions about Trump commuting former Ill. governor Rod Blagojevich's prison sentence.

"Well, I think commuting the sentence of former governor Blagojevich under any circumstances would be controversial, but coming as it does with this president, and particularly in the aftermath of his efforts to really significantly undermine the rule of law and seemingly play favorites for his colleagues who have been convicted of crimes, I think it sends entirely the wrong message," she said.

"If the president was somebody who stood for integrity in government, respected the rule of law, and wasn't constantly trying to undermine the Department of Justice, federal judges, and playing favorites with people who have been convicted of serious crimes, I think an action would have a lot more credibility than this one is ever going to have," Lightfoot added.

"Just regret, just be apologetic for what transpired," said State Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford on what she'd like to hear from the former governor after his release. "Hold yourself accountable and allow it to be a lesson for all of us other elected officials, to make sure we follow things by the book, that we do things accordingly, that we uphold ourselves."

Republicans and Democrats in Springfield were united Tuesday in expressing their disappointment that Preisdent Trump commuted former governor Rod Blagojevich's sentence.

But Lightfoot did have compassion for Blagojevich's family.

"You have ot have compassion, that family has suffered a lot," she said.

In a written statement, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said: "Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated. President 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. I'm committed to continuing to take clear and decisive steps this spring to prevent politicians from using their offices for personal gain, and I will continue to approach this work with that firm conviction."

The former federal prosecution trial team and former U.S. attorneys who represented the government at trial in U.S.A. v. Blagojevich said in a written statement: "Although the President has exercised his lawful authority to commute the remaining portion of Mr. Blagojevich's prison sentence, Mr. Blagojevich remains a felon, convicted of multiple serious acts of corruption as governor. The criminal conduct for which a jury unanimously convicted Mr. Blagojevich included the following actions: (1) extorting the CEO of a children's hospital by withholding important state funding to help sick children until the CEO provided campaign contributions; (2) extorting the owners of a racetrack by intentionally holding up the signing of important state legislation until the owners provided campaign contributions in response to an explicit demand for them; (3) extortionately demanding funding for a high-paying private sector job, as well as campaign contributions, in exchange for naming a replacement to an open U.S. Senate seat; and
(4) lying to the FBI to cover up his criminal activity. The law and extensive facts underlying Mr. Blagojevich's conviction were reviewed by independent judges on an appellate court and by the Supreme Court of the United States. These courts affirmed Mr. Blagojevich's conviction and sentence, and the appellate court described the evidence against him as "overwhelming." Extortion by a public official is a very serious crime, routinely prosecuted throughout the United States whenever, as here, it can be detected and proven. That has to be the case in America: a justice system must hold public officials accountable for corruption. It would be unfair to their victims and the public to do otherwise.
While the President has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich's sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes. His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account."

Democratic State Rep. Will Davis, who represents Chicago's south suburbs, told ABC7's Craig Wall he was "stunned and surprised" by the news.

"We have a president who is more about the theatrics of governing than the reality of governing," Rep. Davis said. "I'm sure this effort is more about just trying to detract from those things that he is challenged with as a president, versus focusing his efforts and energies on real, substantive issues that impact the country."

In a written statement, Illinois GOP chairman Tim Schneider said: "In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety. Rod Blagojevich is certainly no exception. The former Governor's proven record of corruption is a stain upon Illinois and its citizens. We must stand up and send the message that corruption will not be tolerated in Illinois."

State Senator Cristina Castro (D-Elgin), who serves on the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, issued the following statement: "Rod Blagojevich's sentence was commuted because he is friends with the president and appeared on his realty show, and no other reason. The misdeeds he committed while governor of our great state are disgraceful and embarrassing, and it's a shame that his friendship with the president affords him the luxury of not facing the full consequences of his actions."

State Senator Julie Morrison (D-Lake Forest) released the following statement: "The commutation of Rod Blagojevich's sentence by President Trump is yet another reason ethics reform must be passed at both the state and federal level. We must pass ethics reform during this legislative session to ensure we never have another case like Blagojevich's. We must also hold elected officials to the highest standards and work to end political corruption."

The Illinois House Republican Delegation, comprised of Reps. Darin LaHood (IL-18), John Shimkus (IL-15), Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), Rodney Davis (IL-13) and Mike Bost (IL-12) released a statement, saying: "We are disappointed by the President's commutation of Rod Blagojevich's federal sentence. We believe he received an appropriate and fair sentence, which was the low-end of the federal sentencing guidelines for the gravity of his public corruption convictions. Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters. As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn't let those who breached the public trust off the hook. History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well."

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider responded to the commutation with a statement, saying, "In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it's important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety. Rod Blagojevich is certainly no exception. The former Governor's proven record of corruption is a stain upon Illinois and its citizens. We must stand up and send the message that corruption will not be tolerated in Illinois."

Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said in a statement: "Former Governor 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.

"At a time when corruption by elected officials is still in the headlines, Illinois and Washington should move quickly to establish stricter ethics requirements, including the full detailed disclosure of income, net worth, and income tax returns by all elected officials."

State Rep. Mark Batinick released a statement: "I strongly disagree with President Trump's commutation of Rod Blagojevich's sentence. With the widespread corruption we are currently dealing with in our state, this sends absolutely the wrong message to our residents. Self-serving politicians have no place in our government or the State of Illinois.

Blagojevich's conviction and sentence were fitting for a corrupt politician, and I am disappointed to see this justice undercut. I have voiced my support for tougher ethics laws for some time now, and as we continue to wait for Democrats to get on board with stronger ethics legislation, I will continue advocate for greater reform in government and for the people of Illinois."


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