'Trial by Media': How Illinois guv Rod Blagojevich was jailed for peddling Obama's seat before Trump rescued him
"The nation's least popular governor but most popular news story."
That's how former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is remembered as by many media houses. In a state riddled with political scandals, linked investigation, and an extensive history of political corruption, Blagojevich ran for the office of governor on an anti-corruption plan. He won. Illinois, by that time, had five governors in its history who had been indicted on corruption charges.
The residents related to him because he came from their neighborhood, stating that the elites in the state have been in power for too long and his election would bring a new day in Illinois.
Blagojevich came from nothing. He wasn't among the political elites. He was different from his predecessors. His father was an immigrant from Serbia and mother a ticket collector. He worked for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System as a dishwasher to afford college. He came from nowhere, but gradually he began climbing up, socializing, and playing political games.
He became a lawyer but had always remained interested in politics. One day, the aspiring politician struck gold when he met Richard F "Dick" Mell's daughter Patricia "Patty" Mell at a fundraiser her father had organized. Dick Mell was very powerful in Chicago, and had served on the Chicago City Council for years. After a whirlwind romance, Blagojevich and Patricia married, making him the son-in-law of Dick Mell. The media became interested in him.
Soon, with the strong political backing of his father-in-law, Blagojevich ran for Congress, and shortly after for governor. All this while Dick Mell helped him raise money for his campaign. Blagojevich realized early on that raising money meant power. The Democrat became Illinois' governor and was regarded by the media as a populist with a possible future in the White House.
Blagojevich won the race in 2002, made strides in his first term, and embraced the media's attention, he almost thrived off of it. He ran for the gubernatorial race for the second time and realized he would have to raise his own money if he wanted to come out of Dick Mell's shadow.
Blagojevich wanted to be independent, and that's when he appointed his own fundraising team. His team was willing to do whatever was necessary and offered Blagojevich's services as a governor in exchange for funds. The strategy worked, Blagojevich won a second term in 2006 and left his father-in-law in the lurch.
Dick Mell increasingly became resentful of Blagojevich, and one day after a family dinner, he let a reporter know: "They're selling important committee assignments for $50,000 a piece." The tip instantly became a big headline, it was all over the press, and suddenly the FBI was interested. Federal agents launched a secret investigation, which included wiretapping the governor's phone. His inner circle was also under probe.
Blagojevich knew that the feds were onto him but he never thought anyone would wiretap a state governor's phone. He continued doing what he was doing and that is when the feds became aware that he was doing something with a Senate seat. They eventually figured it out. Barack Obama had become president, and Rod, as a governor, had the power to appoint Obama's replacement in the Senate. Blagojevich found another money-making opportunity and attempted to sell the seat to the highest bidder.
"I mean I've got this thing, it's fu**** golden. And, I'm not just giving it up for fu**** nothing," Blagojevich said in one of his wiretapped tapes. In another tape, he told his 24-year-old nephew on his birthday that only if he were five years older, he could have given him a US Senate seat as a present.
On December 9, 2008, the FBI came to the house along with a SWAT team to arrest him. The governor reportedly could not understand the situation completely, and in the middle of the commotion, while he was taking down the stairs by one of the agents, Blagojevich asked him how his hair looked. He was charged with corruption.
BUSTED! The news was all over the media, it was like a nuclear weapon going off. From a public official, Blagojevich had become a disgraced private citizen. There were increasing calls for him to resign. But he did not, and insisted that he was not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.
Instead of keeping silent about the case, Blagojevich hired Sam Adam Jr, R Kelly's attorney. His defense team advised him to launch a media campaign, and he relished it. He appeared on every talk show possible: 'The Ellen Show', 'Good Morning America', 'The Early Show', 'The View', 'Today's Show' and several others. He also appeared on 'Celebrity Apprentice' and got to know Donald Trump there. Blagojevich wanted to portray himself as a funny, likable guy, which many thought was an attempt to influence the jury pool. The governor had become a celebrity.
As the trial date approached, the state senate worked fast and impeached Blagojevich on January 29, 2009. As the trial began, the presiding judge has to ask Blagojevich to stop tweeting live updates from the courtroom. If convicted, Blagojevich was facing upto 415 years in prison and $6 million in fines. As the prosecution began presenting its case, it appeared complicated and bookish to the jurors.
It was difficult for them to focus on the technicalities of the law being laid out in front of them. The defense seized the opportunity and portrayed Blagojevich's conversations as political horsetrading. The defense even traced the money brought in the office from corrupt deals but none of it reportedly went to Blagojevich. His chief of staff testified in court saying he himself kept the money of the deals and did not send it to the governor.
After two weeks of trial, the verdict came: Guilty on only one count, deadlocked on other charges. Blagojevich was only convicted of lying to the feds. It was a major victory for the former governor.
"We were elated at the hung jury but there was a sense of dread that the government was going to come back at us again," Blagojevich's wife Patty said. "They weren't going to let it rest."
The government appealed, and there was a second trial. This time the prosecution had learned the ways of the defense and had streamlined the case, focusing only on recorded calls. The feds had recorded hundreds of hours of calls and it had incriminating evidence in them. "They just sprung it on us... the government came out swinging," the defense team said. Blagojevich could not talk his way out of this.
The verdict found him guilty of 17 charges of corruption. He received the longest sentence for any state politician — 14 years. It appeared that his press strategy had backfired in the end.
Years into prison, Patty found a sign of hope. Donald Trump had become the president of the United States. She said there was only one person in whose hands their fates rested and that was Trump, adding that the best way to put her message across was to appear at places he was paying attention to — Fox News. And it worked. In 2019, Trump said he was considering commuting Blagojevich's sentence. "I thought he was treated unfairly, he shouldn't have been put in jail."
On February 18, 2020, President Trump commuted his sentence. Blagojevich served a total of 8 years in prison.
"I watched his wife on television," Trump said. "I don't know him very well. I knew him for a short while in Apprentice a few years ago. He seemed like a very nice person." Blagojevich, after his release, was greeted by a swarm of reporters.
Netflix's docuseries 'Trial By Media' premiered May 11.