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Plaquemine Post South - Plaquemine, LA
  • Editorial: Justice at last for Illinois, Blagojevich

  • Since that fateful day in December 2008, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested by federal authorities at his home before dawn, we have waited for the moment that arrived Monday with his conviction on a wide range of corruption charges.

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  • Finally, justice.
    Since that fateful day in December 2008, when then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested by federal authorities at his home before dawn, we have waited for the moment that arrived Monday with his conviction on a wide range of corruption charges.
    Because Blagojevich had spent much of the time after his arrest mocking us with an extended, high-profile publicity tour, Monday’s verdict — carrying the potential for many decades of prison time — was all the more satisfying.
    But while we firmly believe justice was served in Monday’s verdict, and we took some satisfaction from seeing our publicity-seeking former governor rendered nearly speechless afterward, there’s really no joy in it.
    Much as we might like to believe that Rod Blagojevich got what he deserved, we also must accept that Illinois got what it deserved in twice electing him.
    Corruption quickly
    Blagojevich’s election in 2002, even set against his misdeeds of the next six-plus years, was understandable. He eked out a primary victory with 36.5 percent of the vote to Paul Vallas’ 34.47 percent and Roland Burris’ 29.03 percent. After the scandals that would lead outgoing Republican Gov. George Ryan to a federal conviction and six years in prison, even a Democratic candidate with a name like Blagojevich had a clear advantage in the general election.
    There’s no such explanation for his re-election four years later. By then, we knew something was seriously amiss in his administration and, to those who worked with him, in his personality.
    It took 54 days of overtime for the legislature and Blagojevich to pass a budget in 2004. State policy routinely took the form of publicity stunts — like Blagojevich’s ill-fated programs to buy flu vaccine and prescription drugs from foreign countries. In January 2005, Blagojevich’s father-in-law, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell, told the Chicago Sun-Times that Blagojevich was trading state jobs for $50,000 campaign donations.
    In June 2006, Attorney General Lisa Madigan released a letter from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald that acknowledged an investigation of hiring fraud in the administration. Fitzgerald said his office had “developed a number of credible witnesses.” On Oct. 11, 2006, Blagojevich adviser Antoin “Tony” Rezko was indicted. Two weeks later, Stuart Levine pleaded guilty to extortion for schemes involving Rezko and Blagojevich confidante Chris Kelly.
    All of this was known well before the 2006 election, yet Blagojevich still won re-election handily over Judy Baar Topinka, a popular, three-term state treasurer elected last year as state comptroller.
    Blagojevich had a $14 million war chest that he used to plaster the airwaves with slick TV ads that played off the very scandals that would eventually bring him down.
    “According to my opponent, I’m the worst person on Earth, and the world is coming to an end,” intoned a grinning, relaxed Blagojevich in one ad. “Come on. Let’s get real.”
    Page 2 of 3 - Those ads are comical now. But Illinois fell for them then — despite the developing scandals being in the news nearly daily.
    Support despite scandal
    Then again, voters weren’t alone in supporting Blagojevich for a second term. If Illinois Democrats looked to party leadership for guidance, they voted for Blagojevich without hesitation.
    None other than House Speaker Michael Madigan — Blagojevich’s political nemesis, we learned in his two trials — co-chaired Blagojevich’s re-election campaign. Apparently in Illinois, having a Democrat as governor was more important than having a governor unencumbered by a federal investigation.
    Party leaders can make all the excuses they want for their support of Blagojevich in 2006 — he had too much money to challenge in a primary, we only nominally supported him — but it changes nothing. Given what the general public knew about the federal investigation of the administration, and given the poor record Blagojevich had in his first term, the leaders of his party should have had the courage to challenge him.
    There comes a time when the well being of the state must come before party loyalty. When the U.S. attorney four months before the election announces that he is investigating “allegations of endemic hiring fraud” and has “developed a number of credible witnesses” against the administration, that time has come.
    With his intense commitment to fundraising, Blagojevich managed to stockpile sufficient funds to scare off any potential challengers and buy enough advertising that no one in Illinois ever had trouble pronouncing his name.
    Luckily for us, that same zeal for raising money was the basis for his conviction on 17 of the 20 counts against him in his second trial.
    In Blagojevich’s first trial last year, the jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts. Perhaps there was poetic justice that the only thing they agreed on was that Blagojevich was a liar, convicting him on a single count of lying to the FBI.
    Culture of corruption
    For years, Illinois has taken some measure of perverse pride in its reputation for political scandal. For years, the “vote early, vote often” caricature of Chicago politics — where the dead were welcome at the polls — has colored the state’s reputation. The record of former governors serving prison time and shoeboxes of cash found in a former secretary of state’s hotel room have become the stuff of state government lore.
    Whatever amusement we may have derived from all that was exhausted over the last two-and-a-half years, as Blagojevich embarked on his self-serving publicity tour. Impeached and disgraced, Blagojevich made it his mission to show the rest of the country how big a mistake we made in electing him. He saw himself as a martyr to government persecution. Everyone else saw him as a clown.
    Page 3 of 3 - Blagojevich’s minimal remarks and deer-in-the-headlights demeanor in his post-conviction press conference Monday showed a side of him we had not seen before. Perhaps, finally, he was coming to grips with the enormity of what’s ahead for him.
    There will be no publicity tour after this. He’ll be the center of attention at his sentencing, after which the TV trucks will head for the next story. Then he’ll follow other once-famous defendants — Bernie Madoff, Jeffrey Skilling, former Gov. George Ryan, to name a few — into the obscurity and anonymity of the federal prison system.
    For the spotlight-loving Blagojevich, that may be the worst punishment of all.
    State Journal Register, Springfield, Ill.

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