A federal judge, dismissing arguments that former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was a pawn of his advisors, told a packed sentencing hearing today that the disgraced governor was clearly a leader in shakedown schemes to sell Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel said it's "absurd" for the defense to suggest that Blagojevich was being manipulated by staffers and advisers. Zagel said secretly- recorded conversations showed that Blagojevich relentlessly worked to use his authority to benefit himself.
"There is no question from his tone of voice that he was demanding," said Zagel. "His role as leader is clearly shown by his actions."
Zagel dismantled defense points one by one, and appears to be setting the groundwork for handing down a stiff sentence tomorrow. However, Zagel agreed with federal prosecutors that federal maximum sentencing guidelines of 30 years to life are "simply not appropriate in the context of this case." The government has recommended 15 to 20 years in prison.
After working the crowds like a campaigning politician during his two trials, Blagojevich arrived quietly through a back entrance at his sentencing hearing. Just before proceedings began, Blagojevich reached out to his wife, Patti, in the front row, saying, "I love you."
In their pre-sentence arguments, the former governor's defense team hardly sounded conciliatory, claiming Blagojevich was a "nominal boss" led astray by advisers, "not directing them in any way." Defense attorney Carolyn Gurland insisted the ex-governor did not benefit financially: "Mr. Blagojevich received nothing, and was going to receive nothing."
But assistant U.S. attorney Reid Schar argued, "The issue is what he wanted to obtain," pointing out Blagojevich maneuvered to benefit from his power to fill Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.
Judge Zagel, sounding skeptical of defense arguments, noted, "In fact, the governor of Illinois had significant power to inflict penalties on those who did not pay." The judge said Blagojevich appeared "pretty relentless" in his efforts to secure a $1.5 million campaign contribution from allies of Democratic congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Defense lawyers argued that federal sentencing guidelines call for a term of three to four years. But Ronald Safer, a former federal prosecutor, told ABC News he expects Judge Zagel to sentence Blagojevich tomorrow to 12 to 15 years. "He's going to have to impose a very stiff sentence," Safer says, because former Blagojevich fund-raiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko recently received 10 ½ years for participating in similar shakedown schemes.
Blagojevich deserves even harsher treatment, according to Safer, because he was Illinois' highest elected official. The former governor could get even more time, Safer says, if the judge believes he perjured himself during his five days of testimony.
Blagojevich will not be going to a so-called "Club Fed" prison camp if his sentence is longer than 10 years. Former prosecutors say he will have to serve time in a medium security prison, working at menial tasks for less than a dollar an hour. There is no parole in the federal prison system, but Blagojevich could get time off for good behavior.
Safer, now a defense attorney with Schiff-Hardin, tells ABC News the judge must deliver a message of deterrence at sentencing, casting Blagojevich as "a shining example of everything that's wrong with corrupt politics." In effect, Safer says, Judge Zagel will be warning other politicians that "those who are out for personal gain will be separated from their families for a very, very long time."