In December 2011, before sentencing Rod Blagojevich to 14 years in prison, U.S. District Judge James Zagel scolded the former governor not only for disappointing the people of Illinois but also for destroying careers and lives along the way.
Blagojevich’s lawyers argued his advisers failed their boss by not adequately steering the governor in moral and legal directions. Zagel didn’t buy it, saying: “He marched them and ruined a few of their careers and more than that in the process.”
On August 9, Zagel will consider reducing Blagojevich’s long prison sentence — the last legal hope for Blagojevich to become a free man in the relatively near future.
Otherwise, Blagojevich, 59, who has been held since March 2012 at a federal prison near Denver, isn’t eligible for release until 2024.
For some, signing on with Blagojevich proved disastrous, like campaign fund-raisers and advisers Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko, both convicted of crimes tied to Blagojevich scandals. Rezko was released from federal custody in May.
Kelly, his life in shambles, killed himself after pleading guilty to corruption and tax charges, downing rat poison at a lumberyard in Country Club Hills and leaving instructions to give prosecutors a message: “Tell them they won.”
|U.S. District Judge James Zagel|
Blagojevich’s college chum Lon Monk, who became the governor’s chief of staff, also served two years in prison and was released in 2014.
A handful of other senior aides say they learned a great deal from their time with Blagojevich, though most of those who worked for Blagojevich rarely speak publicly about it even now, years later.
Sheila Nix, a deputy governor to Blagojevich who steered clear of his administration’s scandals, for several years after her departure in 2008 worked as U.S. executive director for U2 frontman Bono’s ONE Campaign, a group raising awareness of hunger and poverty. In 2013, she landed a role as chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden.
But on her White House biography Nix left off her Blagojevich job. That’s not uncommon among his former staffers. On their resumes, many say they worked for the “Governor of Illinois” but don’t say which governor.
Nix, who commutes from her home in Oak Park to and from Washington most Mondays and Fridays, declined an interview request.
Sheila Nix, left, worked for the ONE campaign from U2 frontman Bono (center) before landing a role as chief of staff for Dr. Jill Biden. (Photos by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile and Lawrence Jackson)
Another former top aide who didn’t return messages seeking comment, Doug Scofield, testified at Blagojevich’s trials and continued working in politics as a statehouse lobbyist and a consultant to U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois. But his rising star under Blagojevich faded.
Scofield was fired by Gutierrez as a consultant after coming under scrutiny in 2013 by the House Office of Congressional Ethics. The office looked into payments of almost $600,000 that Gutierrez made to Scofield as a consultant from 2003-2013. The House Office decided not to launch a formal investigation into the matter.
Scofield was a top campaign aide when Blagojevich was first elected governor in 2002. But even though Scofield was appointed a deputy governor, Blagojevich marginalized him, preferring the counsel of others, including Kelly and chiefs of staff Monk and John Harris.
Recordings of calls between Blagojevich and Scofield, played at trial, revealed a frustrated Scofield trying to walk a tightrope between enabling his former boss and pushing the governor toward a more sound, and legal, path. Scofield is now a principal in the Chicago office for Miramar International Group, a firm that offers public relations and consulting to companies doing business with government.
Harris, meanwhile, served a 10-day prison sentence for his role in the pay-to-play scandal. Harris was budget director for Mayor Richard M. Daley before joining the Blagojevich administration. A Gulf War veteran, Harris has worked as an electrical contractor and tries to maintain a low profile. Reached by phone, Harris said only: “I’m not looking for any sympathy or support or condemnation. I’m good as it is.”
Probably no one was closer to Blagojevich when he entered the governor’s office than John Wyma, his chief of staff when he was a congressman and then a campaign adviser. Wyma wasn’t appointed to Blagojevich’s cabinet, choosing to become a lobbyist. It was a lucrative career move, as Wyma attracted high-profile, high-paying clients seeking access to Blagojevich.
Wyma, who wasn’t charged, played a central role in the FBI’s investigation of Blagojevich, providing information allowing agents to gain legal authority to wiretap phones in Blagojevich’s campaign headquarters and home.
Later, Wyma continued as a Washington lobbyist and recently got a master’s degree in global business administration from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Earlier this year, he traveled to India and elsewhere in Asia to help startup companies facing regulatory hurdles. Wyma was never charged by authorities with wrongdoing, but said in an interview with the BGA that “no matter what side of the table you sit during a public corruption trial, they’re all bad seats.”
The association with Blagojevich “chased me around for a while, but I managed to transition past it,” Wyma said. “It was a difficult situation that we were all forced to confront.
“I will never forget first meeting Rod,” Wyma said. “He was charismatic, smart, a literally limitless man. He had everything. His political success was not an accident. The guy had talent.
“There were a lot of bright people behind him and supporting him, and we had a lot of opportunity to do good. I can only feel sadness for Rod and his family for how things went so wrong.”
William Quinlan, left, and Cheryle Jackson
William Quinlan — who was Blagojevich’s general counsel — said his Chicago-and Phoenix-based law practice is doing well, but the Blagojevich experience scarred him.
“My desire to work in public service or run for public office — that desire is gone,” Quinlan said. “There are a lot of people like me who would have stayed in public service, but now there is no desire.”
That wasn’t the case for Cheryle Jackson, deputy governor for communications for Blagojevich his first 2½ years in office. She went on to the Chicago Urban League, where she was the first woman to be president and chief executive officer of the group, before unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate in 2010. Jackson is now a vice president for AAR Corp., which provides support to commercial aviation and government.
Jackson said that, even though she left Blagojevich early in the first term before the scandal engulfed his administration, she learned about managing the stresses of working in high-level government. Coping in that environment helped her persevere through stresses in her personal life, such as a bout with cancer and a divorce, she said.
“Serving in government is an experience that I think everyone should have the option of doing,” Jackson said. “It was a tough job, for sure. It’s the ultimate in volunteer work. But you leave it learning how to come through with grit and grace and empathy for people, and I had a desire to serve more. I’m tougher and more resilient because of that job.”
As the scandal surrounding Blagojevich mushroomed in his second term, no aide was more accessible than Abby Ottenhoff, who, as his chief spokeswoman, faced daily questioning from reporters. Ottenhoff left in July 2008 after a decade in state government, taking a job with a boutique marketing firm in New York.
Working there for six years, her duties include helping companies with social marketing, including helping NBC News build a campaign aimed at bolstering students’ educational performance.
“It was nice to sit side by side with reporters, rather than across the table,” she said.
She got married, recently gave birth to her first child and moved with her family to San Francisco, where she’s doing part-time consulting. She said her five years in the Blagojevich administration taught her many lessons.
“I learned how damaging it can be when the focus shifts away from the real job, when it becomes about personal goals or addiction,” Ottenhoff said.
“This great system that we’ve set up, it totally breaks down when that happens. I think we really witnessed that firsthand.
“I also learned how important it is to always do the gut check and know that you are doing the best job you can do and make sure it’s worth all the personal sacrifices you make,” she added. “Do the job as long as it is worthwhile and fulfilling. But if it comes to a point where it isn’t doing those things, it’s good to be aware of that and step away and do something else.”
Ottenhoff said the deterioration in the relationships among the state’s leaders — particularly Blagojevich and House Speaker Mike Madigan — wore on her.
“The governor too often preferred a fight over hard work and coming to a resolution,” she said. “His approach was so controversial that eventually nothing got done.”
Bradley Tusk was a 29-year-old wunderkind when the governor made him deputy governor in 2002, having him oversee policy during his first term.
After leaving Illinois in 2006, Tusk was an investment banker with Lehman Brothers for two years before becoming campaign manager for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s successful 2009 re-election bid.
Then, he founded Tusk Ventures, a consulting firm that helps startups. His firm’s biggest client has been Uber, which propelled the company into a multimillion-dollar business.
From his time in Illinois, Tusk learned how to broker deals among parties with wildly divergent political aims, as well as manage personalities. For Blagojevich, Tusk helped usher through balanced budgets, Open Road tolling, preschool expansion and health care and school food programs for the low-income and poor families. He said he’s proud of those policy successes, but for him, Illinois remains in the rearview mirror. He said he’s reached out to “smart people” from his Blagojevich tenure, like Ottenhoff, Wyma and former deputy governor Bob Greenlee, to assist his consulting firm.
“It was a weird experience, for sure, but there was a lot of good stuff in Illinois,” Tusk said. “The best part of that job was the freedom to think of interesting ideas and then do them. We passed a lot of important legislation and ran things pretty efficiently. The worst part, obviously, was dealing with Rod’s craziness.”
Tusk said he’s made enough money to last his family a lifetime. His next mission is developing a foundation to push for humanitarian causes.
“From Illinois, I learned that there are people motivated primarily by the need to hold public office, to fill some deep-seated need that arises from an insecurity or for personal validation,” Tusk said. “But I also learned that there are smart, talented people who, believe it or not, are really in government for the public good.”
This story was written by David Mendell, a Chicago-based journalist and author. He can be reached at email@example.com.