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Crime & Courts

Another former Blagojevich insider to be sentenced

CHICAGO – A second confidant of imprisoned ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich faces sentencing a week after the former Illinois leader's last chief of staff received just 10 days in prison for helping his old boss try to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat.

Today's sentencing of Blagojevich college buddy-turned-top aide Alonzo "Lon" Monk could raise questions about whether Judge James Zagel was too tough on Blagojevich by handing him a 14-year sentence and is going too easy on his ex-lieutenants.

The impeached governor's wife, Patti Blagojevich, weighed in on the issue in a recent Facebook posting responding to the unexpectedly light sentence the judge imposed last Wednesday on her husband's former chief of staff, John Harris.

"I can't help but wonder what planet we are on. 10 days [for Harris] vs. 5,110 days [for my husband, a sentence that is 51,100% higher [for] Rod," she wrote. She added rhetorically about her two young daughters, "How do you explain that to your children?"

Monk agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud for attempting to squeeze a racetrack owner for a $100,000 campaign donation to Blagojevich. He, like Harris, also agreed to testify against Blagojevich in hopes of receiving a drastically reduced sentence.

Monk, 54, faces two years in prison for fraud, according to his agreement with prosecutors. But federal judges aren't strictly bound by plea deals, and Zagel could hand Monk a tougher or even more lenient sentence.

At Blagojevich's sentencing in December, Zagel explained why he felt the one-term congressman and two-term governor deserved a stiff sentence, telling the crowded courtroom that Blagojevich had been the ringleader of the illegal schemes and that, as a top elected official, he had violated voters' trust.

Many believe Zagel got Blagojevich's sentence right.

"Sure, 14 years in longer than 10 days," said longtime Illinois political observer Charlie Wheeler. "But Blagojevich was at the top of the pile. ... Harris was small fry. To me, Blagojevich deserved just what he got."

Blagojevich's 18 convictions for a range of crimes versus Harris' sole conviction renders comparisons of their sentences difficult, said Chicago-based attorney Gal Pissetzky, who defends clients in federal courts around the country.

Harris also faced a maximum five-year term behind bars, while Blagojevich was looking at a theoretical maximum term of 305 years, which makes the impeached governor's 14-year sentence appear somewhat less harsh.

But Pissetzky said Zagel's 10-day sentence for Harris did seem to run counter to rigid rules among federal judges in Chicago, who he says rarely reduce a sentence by more than a third for even the most exemplary cooperative witnesses.

Pissetzky also questioned whether Harris' 10-day term fulfilled mandates for a sentence to act as a deterrent.

"Will 10 days deter someone like Harris in the future from participating in selling a Senate seat?" asked Pissetzky. "Or will someone just say to themselves, 'I'll commit the crime, and if I get caught, I'll admit it, cooperate and just get 10 days'?"

By going easy on Harris and hard on Blagojevich, Pissetzky said, prosecutors were also issuing a clear warning to defendants to come.

"Their message is, if you play ball and cooperate from the get-go you'll be a lot better off, like Harris," he said. "If you exercise your constitutional rights, take the case to trial and lose – watch out!'"

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