CHICAGO — U.S. appeals court judges considering an appeal by imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich focused their questions during oral arguments Friday on what constitutes run-of-the-mill politics and what crosses into political corruption.
During an hour-long hearing that was sometimes contentious, three judges of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals frequently interrupted a prosecutor and pressed her to explain just how the 56-year-old Illinois Democrat’s actions had strayed into criminality.
Blagojevich’s attorneys want the court to toss his corruption convictions or at least agree to slash years off his 14-year prison term, which is one of the longest ever imposed for political corruption in a state where four of the last seven governors have ended up in prison.
The one-time contestant on NBC’s “Apprentice” didn’t attend the hearing; he remained at the Colorado prison where he’s serving his sentence. But his wife, Patti Blagojevich, watched the proceedings, sometimes shaking her head when she disagreed with what was being said.
FBI agents arrested then-Gov. Blagojevich five years ago this week, and jurors convicted him of wide-ranging charges in 2011, including for trying to profit from his power to name someone to President Barack Obama’s old U.S. Senate seat.
That allegation was at the core of Friday’s hearing.
In seeking a cabinet post — possibly as secretary of health and human services — in exchange for a Senate appointment, Blagojevich was merely seeking to further political causes he’d long championed, including health care, Blagojevich attorney Leonard Goodman told judges.
“Mr. Blagojevich’s defense is, ‘I thought this was (legal) political horse trading,’” said Goodman, adding that Blagojevich was an avid student of political history and was therefore conscious of not crossing that line. “This wasn’t some backroom deal.”