CHICAGO — Lawyers for Rod Blagojevich filed an appeal just before a midnight deadline Monday that challenges the imprisoned former Illinois governor's corruption conviction and 14-year prison term, including on grounds the trial judge allegedly committed a litany of errors.
The 100-plus page filing with the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago comes more than two years after the Chicago Democrat's retrial and 16 months after he entered a federal prison in Colorado.
Jurors convicted Blagojevich, 56, of engaging in wide-ranging corruption, including that the two-term governor sought to profit from his power to appoint someone to the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated to become president.
Blagojevich's most shocking crime in the eyes of most observers was no crime at all, the appeal contends. Blagojevich was merely engaging in standard politics when he floated the idea of securing a U.S. Cabinet seat or ambassadorship for himself if he appointed Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett to the Senate seat, it says. Neither Obama nor Jarrett have ever been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
"The record shows that Blagojevich's proposed exchange was an arm's length political deal, described by Blagojevich as a political 'horse trade,'" the appeal says. It wasn't criminal "because the political deal proposed by Blagojevich was a proper and common exchange under our democratic system of government."
The appeal also points to what it says was a lack of evenhandedness by U.S. District Judge James Zagel throughout Blagojeivch's two trials.
It alleges Zagel gave Blagojevich little choice but to testify at his retrial after repeatedly ruling arguments the defense viewed as crucial could only be broached by Blagojevich himself from the witness stand. Once on the stand, Zagel prohibited many of those statements, including Blagojevich's attempt to tell jurors he believed at the time that his actions were legal, it contends.
"Had Blagojevich been permitted to present his good-faith defense, it would have been a powerful defense, likely to produce an acquittal," his lawyers argue.
The appeal also blames Zagel for allowing a juror who allegedly expressed bias against Blagojevich to remain on the jury despite defense attorneys' objections. The appeal only referred to the panelist as Juror No. 174, saying he said about Blagojevich during jury selection, "I just figured him, possibly, to be guilty."
The appeal also raises longstanding claims that Zagel barred FBI wiretap evidence that might have aided the defense, that he sided overwhelming with prosecutors and that he miscalculated the appropriate prison term for Blagojevich.
The appeal was filed about 30 minutes before midnight.
Blagojevich was convicted on 18 counts over two trials, jurors in the first deadlocking on all but one count. Taking the stand in the second, decisive trial in 2011, Blagojevich insisted his talking about wanting to sell Obama's seat was just that — talk.
Zagel imposed a lengthy prison term at a sentencing hearing later in 2011, telling Blagojevich he had abused voters' trust and undermined the democratic process "to do things that were only good for yourself."
Many observers at the time said Blagojevich's best hope on appeal wasn't that a higher court would overturn his convictions but that appellate judges would agree his sentence was too harsh.
Appeals can take years to play out, and defendants rarely prevail.
Another Illinois governor convicted for corruption, George Ryan, filed multiple appeals over years and lost every key ruling. The former Republican leader was recently released after more than five years in prison and seven months of home confinement.
Secret wiretaps of an often foul-mouthed Blagojevich eager to earn big money were at the core of prosecutors' case.
"I've got this thing and it's f------ golden," jurors heard Blagojevich saying in one wiretapped conversation about Obama's vacated seat. "And I'm just not giving it up for f------ nothing."
As Inmate No. 40892-424 in the Federal Correctional Institution Englewood in suburban Denver, Blagojevich's life is highly regimented, including frequent head counts and having to wake at dawn.
In a Facebook posting this year, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, said her husband is spending time in prison teaching Civil War history and learning to play the guitar. She added that he frequently jogs around a quarter-mile prison track.
"All that we have been left with is a aching hole in our lives," she added about herself and the couple's two daughters.
After the then-governor's Dec. 9, 2008 arrest, Blagojevich hit the talk show circuit to declare his innocence and to rail against prosecutors. He even appeared on Donald Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice."