A federal judge heeded uncharacteristically kind words from prosecutors and sentenced a cooperating witness in the prosecution of Rod Blagojevich to three years of probation on Tuesday for his role in trying to shake down an asset management firm.
Joseph Cari, 58, is one of the first notable figures to be sentenced of those who took plea deals and testified against the impeached Illinois governor. Blagojevich's former chiefs of staff John Harris and Alonzo Monk are among those still awaiting sentencing.
Cari, who pleaded guilty to attempted extortion in 2005, told Judge Amy St. Eve just before she sentenced him that he took full responsibility for his actions and was sorry.
"I will live with the shame and pain for the rest of my life," he said, his voice breaking.
The lead prosecutor in both the Cari and Blagojevich cases, known for his steely demeanor, heaped surprising praise on Cari. Reid Schar said his cooperation starting right after his indictment helped trigger the events that led to Blagojevich's conviction on corruption charges.
"I cannot recall a defendant I encountered who was as remorseful as Mr. Cari," Schar added. His comments prompted Cari's lawyer, Scott Lassar, to joke in court that perhaps he should waive his own remarks.
Cari, a former national finance chairman for Al Gore's 2000 presidential run, described to jurors at Blagojevich's first trial how the then-governor boasted to him in 2003 about how governors can pressure companies desperate for state business for campaign cash.
Prosecutors decided not to call Cari as part of their streamlined case at the retrial this year, where Blagojevich was convicted of counts including trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for a high-paying job or campaign donations. Blagojevich is slated to be sentenced Oct. 6.
As part of Cari's probation, St. Eve said he must remain on home confinement for the first nine months, though he will be able to leave to go to work or even to travel abroad on business. He was also fined $50,000.
The maximum prison sentence for attempted extortion is 20 years. Prosecutors had formally asked for a two-year prison term in Cari's plea agreement six years ago, but Schar did not press the case for prison time on Tuesday.
Standing with his hands folded in front of him, the disbarred attorney was calm as St. Eve told him he would not be heading for prison.
That contrasted with his testimony at Blagojevich's first trial, when he choked back tears as he spoke about trying to cope with depression after his wife died. He made news later the same day when a TV camera swung around and knocked him over outside court, sending him sprawling onto the floor.
At Blagojevich's first trial, Cari told jurors that the governor's advisers dangled the possibility that he could get law business and other fees from the state if he put his fundraising contacts to work for a possible Blagojevich run for the White House.
Cari said he eventually bowed to pressure from Stuart Levine, an influential member of the board that governed a multibillion-dollar fund that pays the pensions of Illinois teachers not in Chicago. Levine wanted Cari to call the Virginia-based asset management firm and warn them they would lose an $80 million allocation from the fund if they didn't hire a consultant they had never met. Cari said that when the head of the management firm asked why, he had a simple answer: "That's the way they do it in Illinois."
Levine has pleaded guilty to taking part in a $7 million kickback scheme with former Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko. Neither Levine nor Rezko testified at Blagojevich's trial. Both are awaiting sentencing.
Cari was also a key government witness at Rezko's 2008 trial.