CHICAGO (AP) — Judges considering an appeal by imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich spent much of oral arguments Friday focusing on one question: At what point does run-of-the-mill political horse-trading veer into corruption?
During an hour-long hearing, three judges of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals frequently interrupted a prosecutor and pressed her to explain just how the former Democratic governor's actions had strayed beyond what is otherwise acceptable in politics.
"If you could help me with this, I'd be so grateful: Where is the line that differentiates legal horse-trading from a federal offence that puts you in prison?" Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner asked at one point.
Attorneys for Blagojevich, who was convicted of trying to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat, among other things, want the court to toss his convictions. At the very least, they want to court to slash years off of his 14-year prison term, which is one of the longest ever imposed for corruption in a state where four of the last seven governors went prison.
Blagojevich, who was once a 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.
After the hearing, she told reporters she held out hope that her husband, who turned 57 years old on Tuesday, will win his freedom and return home to her and their two school-aged daughters.
"He's missed so many birthdays and holidays and now this is going on. We've just gone through our second Thanksgiving, coming up on our second Christmas without him," she 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."