One of the last chances for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to win early release from federal prison rests on a pending decision by the man whose Senate seat Blagojevich was convicted of trying to sell — President Barack Obama.
Blagojevich, 60, is in the fourth year of a 14-year prison term. He recently submitted a request to have his sentence on wide-ranging corruption convictions commuted, the U.S. Department of Justice has confirmed.
Obama has rarely mentioned his fellow Chicago Democrat since Blagojevich’s December 2008 arrest, a month after Obama won the presidency, so it’s hard to gauge if he’d give Blagojevich’s request for a reduced sentence serious thought.
A look at the commutation process and factors that could influence a decision:
WHAT IT IS
A commutation is a reduction of a sentence, while pardons amount to forgiveness of a crime that also removes restrictions on rights to run for office and vote. In federal cases, only presidents have the power to reduce a sentence.
If Obama doesn’t get around to deciding on Blagojevich’s application before his last day in office, he would leave it for someone else with a tie to the ex-governor to decide: President-elect Donald Trump.
Blagojevich was on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” TV show in 2010. While Trump eventually “fired” Blagojevich as a contestant, he praised Blagojevich for how he fought his criminal case, telling him, “You have a hell of a lot of guts.”
Among the factors Obama can consider is whether Blagojevich’s punishment was disproportionate to the crime. His 14-year prison term was the longest for an Illinois politician for corruption and his lawyers argue it was too severe.
Blagojevich’s bid to trade an appointment to the Senate seat Obama vacated for campaign cash is regarded as one of the most shocking instances of corruption in U.S. history. A FBI recording notoriously captured a foul-mouthed Blagojevich gushing about how he could profit from an appointment to Obama’s seat: “I’ve got this thing and it’s f—— golden. And I’m just not giving it up for f—— nothing.”
Blagojevich was convicted on 18 corruption counts, which also included a bid to shake down a children’s hospital. While an appellate court later dismissed five counts and ordered Blagojevich be resentenced, his trial judge imposed the same 14-year term earlier this year. Blagojevich’s projected release date is in 2024.
While Obama and Blagojevich were never considered close, their rise in politics occurred around the same time and in the same place — Chicago. When Blagojevich first become governor in 2003, Obama was still a relative unknown state legislator, and it was Blagojevich who was considered the bigger star of the Democratic Party.
Wiretap recordings played at his trials reveal Blagojevich’s deepening jealousy of Obama after he won the presidency. In one, Blagojevich fixates on how Obama’s political success has left him in the dust, telling an aide: “My upward trajectory is … stalled if not … terminally wounded by Obama.”
One connection between the politicians — an uncomfortable one for Obama — is that he and Blagojevich once shared the same fundraiser, Tony Rezko. Rezko was convicted in June 2008 of fraud, money laundering and bribery.
Chances of Obama granting Blagojevich’s request would seem slim.
Blagojevich’s arrest in 2008 was an embarrassment coming as Obama was about to enter the White House, and it seems unlikely Obama would want to renew any association with the disgraced Democrat as he leaves the White House.
Obama has been granting commutations at a rapid pace in his final months. On Dec. 19, he pardoned 78 people and shortened the sentence of 153 others, the greatest number of individual clemencies in a single day by any president. But the focus has largely been on drug cases.
Compared to the total number of requests made, Obama, like other presidents, has granted only a small percentage. Nearly 32,000 commutation petitions have been submitted to Obama since 2009, with just over 1,000 granted, justice department data indicates. That’s a 3 percent success rate for applicants.