Rockford-area U.S. representatives agree ex-governor should remain in prison

PEORIA — "To me, Blagojevich is the definition of the swamp."

That was part of the message U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, conveyed to President Donald Trump last Thursday in a phone call, hours after the president had suggested he was "strongly" considering commuting the 14-year prison sentence of disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

That evening, Trump appeared to back off, tweeting that White House staff were "continuing the review of this matter."

LaHood's call, which lasted about 20 minutes, was made to emphasize objections Illinois Republican lawmakers had to releasing Blagojevich roughly halfway through his time behind bars. LaHood detailed the case he made to Trump and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney during an interview Wednesday morning in his downtown office.

"If you look at the conduct Blagojevich engaged in, it was pervasive, it was extensive," he said, noting that it wasn't just political favor-trading over a Senate seat, but rather a litany of malfeasance: "shaking down the children's hospital, racetrack owner, film producer, the direct pay-for-play politics."

Two representatives whose congressional districts include sections of Rockford are also opposed to the possibility of commuting Blagojevich’s prison sentence.

U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, is one of five Republican members of Illinois’ congressional delegation who signed a joint statement Friday, part of which said: “Commuting the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, who has a clear and documented record of egregious corruption, sets a dangerous precedent and goes against the trust voters place in elected officials.”

U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, also stands against releasing Blagojevich early.

“As a former investigative reporter, I worked to uncover stories of greed and corruption in government,” Bustos said in an email. “I believe public officials should be held to the highest ethical standards, and Gov. Blagojevich betrayed the public’s trust. I don’t believe the sentence was inappropriate.”

In June 2018, LaHood authored a letter signed by all Illinois Republicans in the House urging Trump to decline to commute the sentence. The issue stayed mostly quiet over the last year, but after Trump's statements last week, delegation members re-engaged on it, LaHood said. CNN reported Wednesday that U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, also spoke to Trump on the subject.

LaHood said he also emphasized that "Blagojevich never was remorseful or apologetic about what he engaged in," and that the sentence was actually at the lower end of the federal guidelines.

He also said he worked in the conversation to dispel some myths that had appeared on social media, such as that former FBI director and Trump nemesis James Comey was involved in the investigation. Rather, LaHood said, Comey's position then at the Justice Department was both "really, really far removed" from any on-the-ground effort in Chicago, but also that "there was never an allegation in the prosecution of Blagojevich that there was prosecutorial misconduct, there was judicial misconduct, or there was law enforcement misconduct."

He said he doesn't see a circumstance now in which he'd support commuting Blagojevich's sentence. However, "If there's a change on him being remorseful or apologetic, possibly. But I don't think there's anybody at this point who thinks it's a good idea."

Gov. JB Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, both Democrats and the latter a former federal prosecutor, have also expressed opposition to releasing Blagojevich early. However, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said last week he thought the 14-year sentence was excessive and that a decision on commutation was ultimately up to Trump.

LaHood said he also spoke to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone on the matter. He said that he requested of Cipollone, Trump and Mulvaney that Illinois Republicans have the opportunity to weigh in further before any final decision is made.

Blagojevich has served seven years of his sentence for public corruption, which included attempting to trade the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Barack Obama for personal gain.

Blagojevich is incarcerated in a federal prison in Colorado.

Register Star staff writer Ken DeCoster contributed to this report.