GALEWOOD — Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who inherited a state in financial and ethical chaos after Rod Blagojevich was impeached in 2009, said President Donald Trump’s commutation of his disgraced predecessor was a mistake —and he thinks Blagojevich’s sudden interest in criminal justice reform is just talk.
In a phone interview Thursday night, Quinn said he had piles of ignored clemency petitions left for him when he took office because of Blagojevich’s failure to act. These petitions all had one thing that Blagojevich did not: a semblance of contrition.
“I reviewed almost 5,000 clemency cases and I granted clemency in about I think 37 or 38 percent. I can’t remember a clemency case where the petitioner was not contrite, apologetic, remorseful, sorry it happened. They understood that part of the process was admitting a mistake,” Quinn said, before referring to Blagojevich. “Obviously we didn’t see that yesterday.”
Blagojevich’s backlog dated back to 2003, the Illinois Prisoner Review Board told the Sun-Times in 2016. He acted on less than 25 percent of petitions filed and it took two governors (Quinn and former Gov. Bruce Rauner) 13 years to catch up.
Blagojevich’s sentence was commuted Tuesday by Trump after serving nearly eight years of a 14-year sentence for what former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzpatrick called a “political crime spree.”
Blagojevich was charged with corruption for attempting to sell the senate seat vacated by then-President-elect Barack Obama “to the highest bidder.” He was also convicted of extorting the CEO of a children’s hospital, extorting the owners of a racetrack and lying to the FBI. The normally measured Fitzgerald added the conduct captured on wiretaps “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
In a press conference outside his Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday, Blagojevich described himself as a “freed political prisoner” and said he hopes to use his experience in prison to reform a “broken, and I believe in many cases, corrupt criminal justice system.”
Quinn, who still lives in Galewood and is doing volunteer work with housing and veteran groups, did not predict where Blagojevich will land now that he is out of prison but noted Blagojevich didn’t seem to care about criminal justice reform when he was governor.
“There’s only one person in Illinois with the power of clemency; that’s the governor. This is part of our constitution. The governor can grant clemency when he thinks it’s proper, and Blagojevich just didn’t do that,” Quinn said. Lots of people petitioned for it and followed procedure.
“When I became governor in January 2009, there were lots of problems and one of them was that those cases hadn’t been addressed in many years.”
He estimated Blagojevich left behind close to 3,000 clemency petitions at the time he was removed from office. Quinn also said that wasn’t the only problem Blagojevich left him.
“I had to take the oath of office in one of the darkest times in Illinois history. You not only had a corrupt governor and an ethics scandal like no other, but at the same time the national economy was collapsing and the Illinois budget was in the ditch,” Quinn said. “All three things together at the same time I had to navigate through.”
Quinn said he has not spoken to Blagojevich since well before he was arrested in December 2008 and has no relationship with him. And while Quinn was lieutenant governor under Blagojevich, he was quick to point out that he was not Blagojevich’s pick.
“The way it worked back then — they have since changed the law — but the lieutenant governor was nominated separately from the governor,” Quinn said. “That’s how I got to be lieutenant governor. He wasn’t for me when he ran for governor. He was for somebody else, but I won the primary.”
Quinn also highlighted work he did as governor in the area of criminal justice reform and contrasted it to Blagojevich’s work, which he characterized as “talk.”
“I signed deals like Ban the Box that let people who were coming home after serving their time get a chance for a job. I had a program called Put Illinois To Work that did allow for returning citizens to get a job. These … things are part of criminal justice reform, not just talking,” Quinn said.
As for Trump’s contention Blagojevich served a lot of time and was separated from his family unfairly, Quinn had no sympathy.
“A jury of 12 men and women convicted him and it was upheld on appeal. I would have never granted clemency to someone who wasn’t sorry for what they did. That’s part of redemption,” Quinn said. “I believe in redemption and that is part of it, admitting that I made a mistake and I’m sorry I did and I won’t do it again.
“There are thousands of people whose petitions I looked at who had exactly that attitude and they had families, they had wives and kids and relatives and friends that missed them and they were not able to be with them because of their time. I just think that has to be part of the process.”
Reflecting on Blagojevich, Quinn ended the conversation by saying, “He didn’t learn anything in jail.”
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