Blagojevich aide's friendship with fallen governor doesn't soften sentence of 2 years in prison

CHICAGO (MCT) — Of all those who have fallen in the federal takedown of Rod Blagojevich's corrupt administration, Alonzo "Lon" Monk was perhaps the closest to the former governor.

The two roomed together at Pepperdine University law school. He was a groomsman at Blagojevich's 1990 wedding. And he played key roles in Blagojevich's stint in Congress, both his gubernatorial campaigns and as chief of staff in the governor's office.

As it turned out, the presumably deep friendship appeared to work against Monk on Tuesday as U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced him to two years in federal prison, sticking to a plea deal worked out in 2009 with prosecutors.

Monk had hoped for a break given his cooperation with the governor and in light of Zagel sentencing John Harris, another former Blagojevich chief of staff, last week to a mere 10 days in prison.

As he did with Harris last week, Zagel quickly made an issue of Monk's relationship with Blagojevich — what he knew and when and whether he could have stopped someone who was, in the judge's estimation, determined to flagrantly flaunt the law.

Speaking of the disgraced governor's "personality and ethics," Zagel bluntly asked about Monk's decision to work for the governor.

"My assumption is he knew him well," the judge told Monk's lawyer. "Why would he take the job?"

While Zagel found Harris to be nearly powerless to stop Blagojevich's pervasive scheming, the judge said Tuesday that Monk was in a unique position of not only knowing what Blagojevich was capable of early on but also having the ability to say no to him.

"One aspect that cuts against Lon Monk is the fact (that) he knew what kind of man the governor was. I think he knew much sooner than Harris," Zagel said. " ... He knew he was dealing with someone with a relentless persistence to get his own way."

Both Harris and Monk pleaded guilty to their roles in the scandal in which Blagojevich and his advisers corruptly traded off the power of the governor's office for personal gain.

Harris admitted to trying to help Blagojevich sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama on his election as president in the fall of 2008. Monk, who had since moved on to become a highly paid lobbyist, pleaded guilty to working with Blagojevich in 2008 to squeeze campaign contributions of $100,000 from a horse racing executive in exchange for the then-governor's support of legislation to share Illinois casino profits with horse racing tracks.

As part of his plea deal, Monk also told prosecutors that he, Blagojevich and other key insiders to the governor discussed how they could secretly make hundreds of thousands of dollars from their control over state government.

Monk's attorney, Michael Shepard, argued Tuesday that Harris' light sentence last week created too much of a disparity for it to be fair to still impose a two-year prison term on Monk. He also pointed to evidence at trial that Monk at times tried to dissuade Blagojevich from some of his corrupt plans.

Shepard told the court of Monk's commitment to his family and his volunteer work at his church and as a coach. "He's humble. He's caring. He's an honest person," he said.

Zagel, however, called the two-year sentence "reasonable" in light of Monk's deep connection to Blagojevich and his conduct before and after leaving the administration.

Both Harris and Monk provided key testimony at both of Blagojevich's trials, but there were obvious distinctions drawn between the two at the sentencings.

At Harris' sentencing, much was made of his cooperation with the government and his willingness, as a convicted felon with his job opportunities limited, to make a sharp career change and take dangerous work on high-wire electrical lines.

Monk, on the other hand, initially withheld information from investigators, prosecutors said Tuesday in court. Zagel also spoke of how long Monk remained in Blagojevich's administration and of his decision to continue to profit off his connections after he left to lobby in the state capitol.

"His motives were self-serving," the judge said.

Still, prosecutors called Monk's cooperation key — and even noted that his very close relationship with Blagojevich likely made his cooperation far more stressful.

"He testified two times in a situation that (was) clearly made more difficult for him because of his personal relationship with Mr. Blagojevich," Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner said.

Shepard also pointed out the strain Monk felt being so close to Blagojevich, particularly during the first trial when Blagojevich publicly criticized Monk about his testimony. Shepard also talked about "the flip side" of Monk knowing Blagojevich so well.

"It's very hard to deal with a close friend," he said.

At one point, Monk whispered into Shepard's ear, asking him to make a point clear to Zagel about the friendship.

"His personality was not the (kind of) personality that would best take on Blagojevich," Shepard then told Zagel. "I think the court can consider this also."

Monk has requested he serve his time at a federal prison camp in Terre Haute, Ind. He is scheduled to report July 6.

Monk, who said he was unemployed and living in Downstate Decatur while testifying during Blagojevich's first trial in 2010, never mentioned his former boss and friend in his brief remarks Tuesday to Zagel.

"I'm prepared to serve my sentence," he said. "... And I look forward to coming back a better person ... a better father, a better husband, a better friend."