Rod Blagojevich makes no bones about it.
He’s doing a great job in his current position.
“I’ve been given the jurisdiction to sweep and mop two floors,” he says. “So my jurisdiction has shrunk from the fifth biggest state in America, to these two floors. But I don’t care what anybody says, I believe in clean government, and I believe in clean floors.”
Now in his sixth year at the federal penitentiary in suburban Denver known as FCI Englewood, the former two-term Illinois governor still adamantly maintains his innocence. And says he has managed not to become bitter about his plight.
“I take one day at a time and I have a purpose,” he says. “My purpose is very strong that I have to be strong and deal with this affliction and accept the fate that’s been assigned to me.”
It is Blagojevich’s first public comment since he entered FCI Englewood five and a half years ago. Over the course of two one-hour conversations with NBC 5, the former governor spoke of his family and his desire to set the record straight through another appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
“What sustains me during this very difficult long hard trial is the love I have for my children and my wife Patti,” he said. “My kids can see from both of their parents that when adversity enters their life, when your calamity comes on like a whirlwind, and just about everything’s been taken from you, that you don’t quit---you keep going and you draw from the hardest suffering the inspiration to carry on.”
Blagojevich is now housed in the “camp” at the Colorado prison, a lower-security facility where he enjoys more freedom. But he still faces the balance of a 14-year sentence and a scheduled release date in 2024.
“Do you realize, I have twice been given a longer prison sentence than Al Capone?” he says. “I’ve been given a prison sentence by the same judge who gave a mafia hit man...he acknowledged under oath, a contract killer, my judge gave me a longer sentence than him!”
Blagojevich is correct. And he drew that 14-year sentence in a case where the government was never able to prove that he took any money. Still, his case achieved worldwide notoriety, branding Blagojevich as a virtual poster child for political corruption. And the U.S. Attorney’s office in Chicago is preparing to vigorously fight still another Blagojevich appeal.
“All I’m asking for is--apply the law,” he says. “And if you apply the right law, I didn’t cross the line.”
For Blagojevich, the world changed radically on the day he walked into FCI Englewood, March 15, 2012.
“You walk in there on the first day and your heart’s broken,” he says. “You’re in there and then they close the gates on you, and you’re in prison. And you’re yearning for your children and your wife and your home, and you’re looking at 14 years. And you can’t even see the flicker of a light at the end of a tunnel.”
At the other end of that tunnel, wife Patti has essentially become a single mother to the two Blagojevich daughters.
“Life has been a challenge for the last five years,” she says. “The first couple of years were super hard, super distressing. Every single birthday, every single Christmas, Halloween, every single event would go by and Rod wouldn’t be there--so heartbreaking!”
“But the sad thing is right now, it’s almost like you don’t expect him to be there, because he’s gone for…(on the day of the interview) tomorrow is Amy’s 21st birthday. This is the sixth birthday that he’s missed. So it’s like, you’re not looking for him anymore.”
Patti Blagojevich says she remembers vividly the day her husband was arrested in December of 2008.
“Phone rings at six in the morning and it’s the FBI, and they say we have a warrant for your husband’s arrest,” she says. “I think I hung up on them--I thought it was a joke. They called back and said if we don’t come down, they were going to bust the door open.”
“I would say if you had to talk about the worst days of your life, that was one of them,” she says. “When they took him away, I just knew at that point nothing in our lives would be the same again.”
Blagojevich spent his first three months in the main institution at FCI Englewood like any other inmate---in the kitchen. But he quickly took on other responsibilities, in the classroom.
“I taught for maybe 30, 29 months in the higher security prison---I taught Civil War history and history of World War II,” he says. “I gave the example of Abraham Lincoln and the difficulties he had to go through…and I tell stories to these guys and say, ‘If you think you’ve got it hard, think about him!’”
“And I’ve got to say, my classes were always sold out---I felt like Elvis for a second, you know?”
To Illinoisans who were familiar with the sight of Blagojevich jogging through Ravenswood with his bodyguards in tow, it should not be a surprise that he continues to run on the prison track. He spends time in the weight room. And, he catches up on his reading.
“Way more than I ever hoped for,” he notes.
“I try to work on writing, so I’ve been working on a series of essays for my daughters,” he says. “These essays are profiles of people who have gone through crushing adversity, and the purpose is to write these stories and give them to my daughters so they can draw some inspiration from what other people have had to go through when things were difficult for them.”
The former governor’s 14-year sentence came as the result of two criminal trials, two appeals, and one abortive trip to the Supreme Court. Out of all of those, he did manage to get five counts dropped from his convictions. But his sentence was not shortened. And now he is preparing a second trip to the nation’s highest court, insisting that everyone up to this point has gotten it wrong.
“The rule of law is not a lump of clay, to be put into the hands of prosecutors, to be shaped by them any way they want, to fit any facts, in order for them to ensure convictions.” he says. “The law is the law, and the law is what the Supreme Court says it is.”
Now, Blagojevich is once again hoping that the Supreme Court will listen as he essentially asks them to use his case to clarify when a politician steps over the line in fundraising. Because, he insists, he always stayed on the right side of that line. And those who prosecuted his case got it wrong.
The result, after two criminal trials, was a sentence which is one of the longest ever levied against a politician in America. Blagojevich and his legal team point to other notable cases where there were much smaller penalties: former governor George Ryan did only 6 and a half years; many other governors in other states who were convicted of taking money or accepting lucrative favors have done fewer than two years in prison.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whose life collapsed in a child abuse scandal, spent only 13 months behind bars. Jesse Jackson Jr., the former congressman, admitted looting his campaign fund of $750,000, but only drew a 30-month sentence.
Evidence in the Blagojevich trial showed he never received a penny in bribes. But he is doing 14 years in prison.
Blagojevich says he gets on well with his fellow inmates. Indeed, on that day he arrived, they knew he was coming, because they watched it live on TV.
“They call me ‘Dawg’ or ‘govvie,’ or sometimes they call me ‘G,’” he says. “They gathered up a care package to give me some of the necessary things I’d need ‘til I was able to go to the prison store and get stuff, like coffee, toothpaste, a toothbrush, they even had a yellow legal pad in there--it was really kind of touching!”
At his resentencing last year, many inmates wrote letters on Blagojevich’s behalf. He says he has tried to help many of them to prepare for life on the outside.
“Especially in the higher security prison next door…you’ve got a lot of kind of a tougher crowd over there,” he says. “I spent a lot of time with several of them, walking around the track and actually doing some mock job interviews, helping them try to make their case to a prospective employer that they should not be prejudiced against them because they’ve been incarcerated.
And then there was the band.
“Yeah, the group was originally called ‘G-Rod and the Jailhouse Rockers,’” he says. “But that sounded too gang-bangerish, and so the powers that be said just call it ‘Jailhouse Rockers.’”
His group performed for a GED graduation in June of 2013.
“And you know, my two-bit Elvis impersonation got a little less bad and I was able to work on the singing,” he notes. “We worked frankly hours my first year and a half, probably five hours a day, getting ready for that GED concert.”
The result was a vast reportoire which included “That’s Alright Mama,” “All Shook Up,” and of course, “Jailhouse Rock.”
“And if I ever have a chance to be in a place other than this, I feel like my version of “Jailhouse Rock” is much better, because I’ve actually lived it!”
For now, Blagojevich waits. He sees his family, on average, three times a year. And insists he is optimistic about the future.
“I would do a shoutout to my fellow underdogs, that are facing powerful forces among us,” he says. “Don’t ever quit. Even if you hit rock bottom, as I have, put faith over fear, you’ve got to go through the fire. Run with patience and endurance in the race that’s set before you, and if you have to, take a stand.”
“Even if the world misunderstands you, criticizes you and say you’re crazy, take a stand. Because you know what the truth is. And when you do it, my experience tells me, trust in God. You’re not alone. You never go alone. Put your faith in Him.”
The Blagojevich legal case. And why he maintains, the courts got it wrong.