CHICAGO – Rod Blagojevich starts his Thursday facing a bleak countdown — 71 days before the twice-elected Illinois governor must say goodbye to his family and begin serving a 14-year sentence for corruption.
During those days, he will scramble to get his financial affairs in order and spend a final birthday and Christmas at home with his wife, Patti, and their two young daughters before heading off to prison to serve the sentence handed down Wednesday.
The next time Blagojevich gets to spend Christmas or his birthday with his children — 15-year-old Amy and 8-year-old Annie — they will likely be young adults. Blagojevich, whose 55th birthday is Saturday, won't be eligible for early release for about 12 years, when he will be around 67 years old.
"I've had a lot of clients who've had to start making preparations the day after they were sentenced," said Gal Pissetzky, a federal defense attorney based in Chicago. "But not a single one of them has been able to prepare for saying goodbye to their children."
Judge James Zagel sentenced Blagojevich on Wednesday on 18 counts of corruption, including his June convictions on charges that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job. The impeached governor must report to prison on Feb. 16.
The Blagojeviches, who say his legal troubles also devastated them financially, put their home up for sale after he was convicted in June, and he would likely want to find a buyer before he heads off to prison. They initially listed it for $1.07 million but reportedly lowered the price recently by several thousand dollars.
To make sure his wife can make those and other financial transactions on her own, Blagojevich will also want to make sure he signs necessary papers to give her power of attorney, Pissetzky said.
There's also the issue of an appeal, something Blagojevich and his attorneys can finally focus on now that the judge has pronounced the sentence.
Federal authorities must still make a final decision about where Blagojevich will serve his time. Wherever it is, Blagojevich will be largely cut off from the outside world. He will have to share a cell with other inmates and work a menial job, possibly scrubbing toilets or mopping floors, at just 12 cents an hour.
On Wednesday, the Rod Blagojevich who once challenged a prosecutor to face him like a man, the glad-handing politician who took to celebrity TV shows to profess his innocence, was nowhere to be found. Frowning and pulling nervously at his tie, the disgraced former governor did his best to display humility in hopes of convincing Judge Zagel to hand him a lesser sentence.
He licked his lips nervously as he stepped up to address the judge — mouthing the words, "I love you," to his wife. Leaning into a hefty oak podium, gripping its sides, the normally fast-talking Blagojevich spoke slowly, sometimes pausing to search for the right word.
"My life is ruined," he told Zagel. Accentuating each word, he added, "I have nobody to blame but myself. ... I am just so incredibly sorry."
The two-term Democrat offered more than half a dozen apologies, including to his former constituents across Illinois. But he stopped, seemingly to gather his composure, when he said he also owed an apology to his family.
"I have ruined their innocence," he said quietly.
It was not enough for Zagel, who proceeded to give Blagojevich close to the 15 to 20 years prosecutors had sought.
"When it is the governor who goes bad," Zagel said, "the fabric of Illinois is torn and disfigured and not easily repaired."
Blagojevich slumped forward in his chair, momentarily frozen as the judge pronounced the sentence. Moments later, his wife, Patti, fell into his arms; when he pulled back from their embrace, he brushed tears from her cheek.
It took two trials for prosecutors to snare Blagojevich. His first ended deadlocked with jurors agreeing on just one of 24 counts — that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery and attempted extortion.
Blagojevich responded to his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest with defiance, proclaiming his innocence with a media blitz. He pursued the spotlight after he was removed from office, appearing in reality TV shows such as "Celebrity Apprentice."
But Blagojevich clearly dreaded the idea of prison time. Asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on that prospect, he answered: "No. I don't let myself go there."
Associated Press writer Deanna Bellandi contributed to this report.
Michael Tarm can be reached at www.twitter.com/mtarm. Don Babwin can be reached at http://twitter.com/dbabwin