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Former Gov. Blagojevich Released From Prison After President Trump Commutes 'Tremendously Powerful, Ridiculous Sentence'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- After spending nearly eight years in prison for his conviction on for, among other things, trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat once held by Barack Obama before he was elected president in 2008, ex-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has gone free, after President Donald Trump granted him clemency on Tuesday.

Trump announced Tuesday afternoon he was commuting Blagojevich's 14-year prison sentence, which freed the former governor from prison without clearing his criminal record.

"He served eight years in jail, has a long time to go. Many people disagree with the sentence," Trump said before boarding Air Force One to head to California on Tuesday. "He'll be able to go home with his family after serving eight years in jail. That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence in my opinion, and in the opinion of many others."

The Federal Bureau of Prisons confirmed to CBS 2 that Blagojevich was released FCI Englewood prison in Colorado Tuesday and is no longer in custody.

In a statement, the former federal prosecutors who handled Blagojevich's case -- former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and his former assistants Reid Schar, Chris Niewoehner, and Carrie Hamilton, who is now a judge -- said the courts repeatedly have reviewed Blagojevich's case, and found the evidence of multiple corruption charges "overwhelming."

"Extortion by a public official is a very serious crime, routinely prosecuted throughout the United States whenever, as here, it can be detected and proven.  That has to be the case in America: a justice system must hold public officials accountable for corruption.  It would be unfair to their victims and the public to do otherwise," they said. "While the President has the power to reduce Mr. Blagojevich's sentence, the fact remains that the former governor was convicted of very serious crimes.  His prosecution serves as proof that elected officials who betray those they are elected to serve will be held to account."

RELATED: Rod Blagojevich And The History Of Crooked Illinois Governors

Trump had repeatedly hinted at showing leniency to Blagojevich since taking office, but did not act until Tuesday.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker blasted the president's decision to commute Blagojevich's sentence.

"Illinoisans have endured far too much corruption, and we must send a message to politicians that corrupt practices will no longer be tolerated. President Trump has abused his pardon power in inexplicable ways to reward his friends and condone corruption, and I deeply believes this pardon sends the wrong message at the wrong time," he said in a statement. "I'm committed to continuing to take clear and decisive steps this spring to prevent politicians from using their offices for personal gain, and I will continue to approach this work with that firm conviction."

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin, who was among the lawmakers who voted to impeach Blagojevich after his arrest, said he strongly disagrees with Trump's decision.

"We are currently existing in a crisis of corruption and ethics in the state of Illinois, and his actions distract away from the investigation that is currently going on in this building, and also throughout the state of Illinois," he said in Springfield.

Durkin was referring to an ongoing federal corruption probe targeting the red light camera industry, ComEd, and others. That probe has seen former Illinois State Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Chicago) plead guilty to taking $70,000 in bribes to act as a "protector" for red light camera company SafeSpeed. Sandoval said he agreed to take bribes in exchange for blocking proposed legislation to ban red light cameras.

Patrick Doherty, a high-ranking Cook County official, also has been indicted on federal bribery charges accusing him of conspiring to pay bribes to a relative of an Oak Lawn village trustee in order to install new red light cameras in the southwest suburb.

Former Illinois State Rep. Luis Arroyo also is facing charges he bribed an Illinois state senator in return for the senator's support of sweepstakes-related legislation that would benefit one of Arroyo's lobbying clients. Arroyo has since resigned from the Illinois House, and recent court filings suggest he could be working on a plea deal.

Durkin declined to speculate why Trump would show clemency to Blagojevich when many high-ranking Republicans in Congress had urged him not to.

"I have no idea. I don't know what his game is, and I'm not going to try to get into his head. I don't understand what his motivation is, but I think it's wrong," he said.

RELATED: The Blagojevich Saga: How Did We Get Here?

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, said Blagojevich still needs to accept responsibility for his crimes, and she said Trump's clemency decision lacks credibility, given his open animosity towards his own Justice Department.

"If the president were somebody who stood for integrity in government, recognized and respected the rule of law, and wasn't constantly trying to undermine the Department of Justice, federal judges, and playing favorites with people who have been convicted of serious crimes, I think an action would have a lot more credibility than this one is ever going to have," she said.

After two trials in 2010 and 2011, Blagojevich was convicted of 18 corruption counts, including charges he tried to sell an appointment to former President Barack Obama's Senate seat. He reported to prison in March 2012 to begin serving a 14-year sentence.

While a federal appeals court later overturned some of his convictions and ordered a new sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel re-sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years, and an appeals court upheld that decision.

Back in June 2019, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his son, former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr., urged Trump to pardon Blagojevich for his corruption crimes, calling the former governor's 14-year prison sentence "unfair and unnecessary." They say he was a governor who "cared for the people."

Jackson Jr. himself spent time in prison (a little less than two years) after pleading guilty to illegally spending $750,000 in campaign money.

Illinois Republicans in Congress have asked Trump to reject a request for clemency.

Even senior Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has gone on record saying Blagojevich's sentence was too long.

Blagojevich was arrested at his home in December 2008, on charges accusing him of seeking to personally benefit from his position as governor; including trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate seat once held by Barack Obama before he was elected president in 2008. After two trials, he was convicted of more than a dozen corruption counts and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He has been behind bars since March 2012.

While a federal appeals court later overturned some of his convictions and ordered a new sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel re-sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years, and an appeals court upheld that decision.

After his appeals through the courts were exhausted in 2018, his wife, Patti, began focusing on appealing to President Trump for clemency, often appearing on Fox News, the president's favorite network, to ask Trump to show lenience.

Patti Blagojevich has painted her husband as the victim of an unfair prosecution, and a justice system that failed him.

"If they can bring down my husband, who was the governor of the fifth largest state, for asking for campaign contributions, absolutely no one is safe in this country," she once said in her Fox News interview.


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