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UPDATED: ‘Disappointing’: Durkin, Pritzker critical of Trump commutation of Blagojevich sentence

UPDATED: ‘Disappointing’: Durkin, Pritzker critical of Trump commutation of Blagojevich sentence

President said Tuesday former Illinois governor 'seems like a very nice person'

Editor's Note: This story has been udpated with statements from Illinois' Republican congressional delegation, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider and state Sens. Melinda Bush and Julie Morrison.

By JERRY NOWICKI
Capitol News Illinois
jnowicki@capitolnewsillinois.com

Illinois leaders reacted to news Tuesday that U.S. President Donald Trump commuted the prison sentence of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich which he received for corruption convictions.

ABC News confirmed the commutation had occurred Tuesday.

Blagojevich began serving a 14-year federal prison sentence in 2012. He was convicted on 11 criminal counts related to his effort to sell the former U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he became president.

Blagojevich was also convicted on six counts related to campaign contribution shakedowns, including one count which said he essentially tried to trade $8 million in added state funding to pediatric specialists for a $25,000 campaign donation from a hospital CEO.

In 2015, five of those counts were thrown out in appellate courts, although his 14-year sentence was reimposed months later.

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, of Western Springs, said in an interview Tuesday he disagreed with the president and called the decision “disappointing.”

“Currently we have a massive federal investigation into corruption in the state of Illinois, and this action distracts and also dilutes what I think is the proper role of the Department of Justice to root out corruption,” he said.

In a statement, Gov. JB Pritzker, who has on several occasions argued that Blagojevich should serve his full sentence, echoed that sentiment.

“Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated,” he said in a statement. “President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believe this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time. I’m committed to continuing to take clear and decisive steps this spring to prevent politicians from using their offices for personal gain, and I will continue to approach this work with that firm conviction.”

Durkin was involved firsthand with Blagojevich’s bipartisan impeachment effort in January 2009.

“I saw a governor who was rogue on steroids,” he said. “He didn’t care about the state of Illinois, he cared about his own ambition and he abused the office, and the Legislature did the appropriate thing, the federal courts did the right thing, not only at the district court level but also the appellate court and U.S. Supreme Court and they said his sentence was appropriate.”

Durkin questioned why Blagojevich should get “special treatment” when others who are imprisoned for drug offenses receive decades in prison without relief from presidential pardons.

“It’s just because of the celebrity of Rod Blagojevich,” Durkin said. “I think it’s wrong and it sends a bad message to people in this country that … you don’t have to pay your debt to society.”

“I’m never going to be able to figure out how the president messages, nor the decision making that he does,” Durkin said. “That’s something he’s going to have to explain, but I think he needs to explain to the people of Illinois who saw a governor destroy the integrity of this office but also did some very, very terrible things to the finances of this state. I hope that he could make a plausible explanation of why this is appropriate, because I haven’t seen anything yet.”

Durkin added “I guess he’s not concerned about the state of Illinois for next November.”

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Trump told reporters today before he departed on Air Force One, “Yes, we commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich. He served eight years in jail, a long time. He seems like a very nice person, don’t know him.”

State Sen. Cristina Castro, D-Elgin, who serves on the Joint Commission on Ethics and Lobbying Reform, issued the following statement:

“Rod Blagojevich’s sentence was commuted because he is friends with the president and appeared on his realty show (“Celebrity Apprentice” on NBC), and no other reason. The misdeeds he committed while governor of our great state are disgraceful and embarrassing, and it’s a shame that his friendship with the president affords him the luxury of not facing the full consequences of his actions.” 

U.S. Rep Darin LaHood, a Republican and honorary co-chair of Trump’s Illinois re-election campaign, said in August that he spoke to the president and encouraged him not to commute the sentence.

On Tuesday, LaHood and the other members of Illinois' congressional delegation, John Shimkus, Adam Kinzinger, Rodney Davis and Mike Bost, released a statement expressing their disappointment in Trump's action.

"We believe (Blagojevich) received an appropriate and fair sentence, which was the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines for the gravity of his public corruption convictions," they said in the statement. "Blagojevich is the face of public corruption in Illinois, and not once has he shown any remorse for his clear and documented record of egregious crimes that undermined the trust placed in him by voters. As our state continues to grapple with political corruption, we shouldn't let those who breached the public trust off the hook. History will not judge Rod Blagojevich well."

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who has said he would support a shortening of Blagojevich’s sentence, released a statement Tuesday afternoon in which he did not say if he agreed or disagreed with Trump’s action.

“Former Governor Blagojevich betrayed the people of Illinois and engaged in a pattern of corrupt behavior for which he was held accountable and which cost him more than seven years of freedom,” Durbin said in the statement. “At a time when corruption by elected officials is still in the headlines, Illinois and Washington should move quickly to establish stricter ethics requirements, including the full detailed disclosure of income, net worth, and income tax returns by all elected officials.”

On Twitter, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza said, “No surprise, birds of a feather flock together.”

Tim Schneider, state Republican Party chairman, released a statement Tuesday that he initially distributed in August amid conversation of the commutation.

“In a state where corrupt, machine-style politics is still all too common, it’s important that those found guilty serve their prison sentence in its entirety. Rod Blagojevich is certainly no exception. The former governor’s proven record of corruption is a stain upon Illinois and its citizens. We must stand up and send the message that corruption will not be tolerated in Illinois,” Schneider said in the statement. 

State Sens. Melinda Bush, D-Grayslake, and Julie Morrison, D-Lake Forest, each released a statement criticizing the commutation and calling for greater ethics reforms in Illinois.

This story will be updated with their statements and any other further commentary.

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