A Morality Tale in Chicago as Blagojevich Aide Is Sentenced

He should have quit while he was ahead: Once a right-hand man for the governor of Illinois, John Harris now works as an electrician at night and faces jail time.

john harris-body.jpg

John Harris, former chief of staff for imprisoned Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, leaves federal court on Wednesday, after receiving a sentence of 10 days in prison for helping attempt to sell President Barack Obama's vacated Senate seat. AP Images

The tale of John Harris should force us all to look in the mirror and wonder just how many times we'd say "No" to a powerful patron before pragmatism and ambition prompted a moral lapse.

He now prepares for a serendipitously brief prison stay after winding up collateral damage in a notorious political scandal. He does so as perhaps the first high-ranking public official to segue from the center of government power to anonymous nighttime labor as an electrician's apprentice on high-power lines.

His downfall was the penchant to please a superior and being overheard serving as messenger

Harris, 50, is a very down-to-earth attorney and Gulf War veteran who served as an intelligence officer and judge advocate general in the U.S. Army before winding up as budget director to then-Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In what seemed an important career promotion, he left to become chief of staff for then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

He was known for being tough, direct and trustworthy; a guy whom you'd easily hang out with at a bar. He didn't impress by the pure power of his intellect, but he was smart and savvy enough and very focused. For Mayor Daley, he was critical to effectuating a long-stalled expansion of O'Hare International Airport, dealing with complicated airline politics and logistics.

He is, by most accounts, a hard-working and faultlessly decent family man who personifies the complexity of so many people. One of his three boys is in my own second-grader's class at a Chicago public school, where other parents have only the best things to say about him and his wife and the children.

But on Wednesday I sat behind his wife as he was sentenced by a federal judge to an unconventional sentence of 10 days in prison and two years of probation for his role in ignominious tenure of Blagojevich, who recently began his own 14-year prison sentence.

FBI wiretaps captured many hours of conversations involving him and the governor in which his boss ordered him to execute various schemes and dumb requests. In numerous instances, he manifested his private qualms by simply not carrying out those orders.

Indeed, in one instance, Judge James Zagel revealed Wednesday, the former Army captain did say no when Blagojevich was characteristically inclined to fulfill a Chicago alderman's outrageous request that a young man with the Illinois National Guard not be deployed to Iraq. Harris would not go along with such a fix.

But ambition, and being so close to the seat of government power, did not prompt him to leave the lair of a man who may well be mentally unstable. He rolled his eyes, complained privately to some but stuck around.

His downfall was the penchant to please a superior and being overheard serving as messenger for one of the many quid pro quos that "Blago" mulled after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. This involved the governor seeking a union-paid position in return for possibly naming Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of the Obamas, to the Senate seat that ultimately went to a bonafide hack, Roland Burris.

Harris was arrested the same morning as Blagojevich but, unlike his boss, quickly resigned his job, offered significant assistance to the government and pleaded guilty to conspiring to solicit a bribe.

On Wednesday, the government detailed his cooperation; in particular how he helped prosecutors decode hundreds of hours of wiretaps, most of which weren't used at trial and will thus never be public.

"He was in a unique position," said Carrie Hamilton, a prosecutor, and assisted her and colleagues with understanding calls that didn't make any initial sense to them.

He was their star witness at both Blagojevich trials, especially the retrial that led to the impeached governor's sweeping conviction and jail term. And, while both helping prosecutors interpret much of their evidence, then testifying on their behalf, he was "reinventing himself," as Ms. Hamilton put it, by giving up his law license (presumably before he'd be disbarred as a convicted felon) and becoming an electrician's apprentice to pay his family's bills.

So a man who was once right-hand aide for the governor of a major state found himself working as an electrician at night, arriving home around 6 a.m. and a few hours later heading downtown to assist prosecutors for many hours over many months.

Most all of that was unknown to the outside world, certainly to most at my eight-year-old's school, who simply knew him as a doting parent.

When it was Harris' own turn to speak, he conceded his own fear for his family and his personal shame on the day of his arrest. In seeking to maintain the confidence of his patron, the governor, "I lost my way," he said. "I apologize to the state of Illinois, to my family and friends."

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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