We have stepped through the looking glass, or entered George Orwell’s dystopia. Criminals are victims. Public servants are criminals. Truth is a lie, and lies told loudly and persistently carry the day. We are at a tipping point where the bedrocks of our society are under attack.
President Donald Trump commuted Rod Blagojevich’s sentence Tuesday. Blagojevich will loudly proclaim his innocence, as he has for years, despite the irrefutable evidence that he is guilty. He will rant against the criminal justice system. He will say the prosecutors were the real criminals. The media will dutifully report those rants and many among the public will believe them because of our polarized political perspectives.
But those rants are lies. The “overwhelming” evidence — as the court of appeals called it — against the former Illinois governor included tape-recorded evidence of schemes to extort innocent victims, including the head of a children’s hospital, for campaign contributions. He crassly used his office for personal gain and he was caught. If it was, as he claims, “politics as usual,” that is only because, with his conviction, he became the fourth Illinois governor to be a felon.
There are questions that fair-minded people could raise, but they do not support a commutation.
What about his daughters?
I feel for them just as I felt for the daughters of gang leaders I prosecuted as those gang leaders went to jail for decades. Those children were innocent too. But no helicopters will hover over their homes when their fathers are released from prison. I never left a sentencing as a prosecutor feeling anything but empty. Justice was almost always done, but someone who loved the defendant and who the defendant loved was hurt and that is heartbreaking. The Blagojevich daughters share one thing in common with the gang leaders’ daughters: Their father, not the criminal justice system, caused their pain.
Isn’t eight years enough?
Nearly eight years is a long time. Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan’s sentence was almost seven years. Did that deter Blagojevich from committing his crimes? What message does it send to future corrupt politicians that Blagojevich gets to go home early after abusing his office and the public’s trust for personal gain? Unless the price paid for public corruption is certain and severe, we will keep reliving the same nightmare in Illinois.
From the headlines about investigations, it seems clear the coming year will bring criminal sentences to more and more high-profile Illinois politicians. What message does commuting the sentence of the highest ranking elected official in the state send to those politicians and others about whether public corruption pays?
Aren’t the prosecutors the real criminals?
This is the most insidious message the president sends, and it is intentional. It also could not be further from the truth. The men and women in the U.S. Attorney’s Office are among the hardest working, most dedicated, most selfless public servants in the country. They work 60-, 70- and 80-hour weeks for us. They face mobsters, drug dealers — very dangerous people — and yes, corrupt politicians, and they do not blink. They protect us from health care fraud, elder abuse, human trafficking and countless other crimes.
Do they do it for money? Hardly. They make a small fraction of what they could draw in the private sector. Do they do it for publicity? You may know the U.S. attorneys, but can you name the prosecutors who tried Blagojevich? How about the prosecutors who indicted Chicago Alderman Edward Burke? I didn’t think so. They don’t do it for money or fame. They do it because they believe in the rule of law.
These assistant U.S. attorneys are heroes. While Blagojevich, like President Trump, takes aim at them in the coming days, the current assistant U.S. attorneys will remain silent — that is part of their job. But I have a voice, and so do you.
All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. We need to drown out the lies with truth. We need to stop electing corrupt politicians or we will go over the edge.
Ronald S. Safer, a partner at Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila, is a former federal prosecutor who led the U.S. Department of Justice’s prosecution of the Gangster Disciples during the 1990s. He wrote this column for the Chicago Tribune.