CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich's attorneys admitted Tuesday for the first time that the former Illinois governor is guilty of corruption, saying at his sentencing hearing that he accepts the verdicts against him but the prison term requested by prosecutors is too harsh.
Those comments are in stark contrast to Blagojevich's public statements, in which he adamantly maintained his innocence through two trials since his arrest three years ago.
Attorney Sheldon Sorosky told Judge James Zagel it was illegal for Blagojevich to ask for a job for himself in exchange for his naming of a replacement for President Obama in the U.S. Senate.
"There's no doubt this is a crime to do this in relation to the Senate seat, we accept that," Sorosky said. "I am just saying that does not call for a 15 to 20 year jail" term.
Sorosky made the same argument when he talked about the other crimes for which the former governor was convicted — shaking down a racetrack executive and a hospital executive, as well as lying to the FBI.
But he said none of Blagojevich's actions merit the sentence recommended by prosecutors.
Blagojevich was expected to address Zagel later in the two-day hearing. Legal experts have said he needs to display some remorse.
Zagel, who has said he'll wait until Wednesday to pronounce a sentence, said earlier that Blagojevich was clearly the ringleader of the schemes for which he was convicted and lied about his actions on the witness stand. In comments that could signal a lengthy prison sentence, Zagel made it clear he did not believe a suggestion made by defense attorneys that Blagojevich was duped by aides and advisers.
"There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding," Zagel said of Blagojevich's comments on phone conversations secretly recorded by the FBI. "His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions."
And in a harsh assessment of Blagojevich's performance on the witness stand, Zagel said the former governor was lying when he testified that he planned to appoint the state's attorney general to Obama's seat in a legal political deal.
"I think this is untrue," Zagel said. "I thought it was untrue when he said it, and I think it is still untrue."
The impeached state executive-turned-reality TV star has good reason to feel anxious. If Zagel settles on a sentence of more than a decade, that would be one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a tradition of crooked politics.
That history shouldn't count against Blagojevich, his attorney told the judge. Carolyn Gurland said it would be unfair to Blagojevich for Zagel impose a stiffer sentence because of officials previously sent to prison such as former Gov. George Ryan and Congressman Dan Rostenkowski.
"The law is clear that he should not be punished because of the history of corruption in Illinois," she said.
If Blagojevich gets the 15 to 20 years in prison that prosecutors recommended, she said, he would become the most severely punished public official in state history.
Prosecutors say the twice-elected governor not only shirked all responsibility for his crimes but repeatedly thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system. Blagojevich's attorneys have said he has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, and proposed a term of just a few years.
Gurland also argued that Zagel should take into account the fact that Blagojevich did not "receive a single penny" in ill-gotten gains — unlike other politicians convicted of public corruption.
"Rod Blagojevich received nothing," she said, adding that Blagojevich was doing what politicians do — seeking campaign contributions, not "money stuffed into envelopes."
Gurland also said a lengthy prison sentence would devastate Blagojevich's family.
Blagojevich and his wife knew they were setting themselves up for ridicule by appearing on reality television shows, she said, but they did so to provide for their children. Blagojevich appeared on "Celebrity Apprentice," where he struggled to use a cellphone, and his wife, Patti, ate a tarantula on the reality show "I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!"
Both sides could finish their pitches to Zagel during Tuesday's hearing, which was moved to a large courtroom. Among the attendees were more than a dozen jurors from both of Blagojevich's trials, including both foremen.
Blagojevich's sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest. The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.
After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job — possibly scrubbing toilets — at just 12 cents an hour.