Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is disappointed that he’s not allowed to leave the country to participate in a celebrity reality show in the Costa Rican rain forest. But, he said Thursday, the judge who declared him a flight risk may have done him a favor.
“I guess the judge did save me from eating bugs,” the indicted politician told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira in an exclusive interview.
Blagojevich was impeached in January after federal investigators alleged that he had attempted to sell the Senate seat that was vacated by President Barack Obama. On April 2, he was formally indicted on 16 felony counts, including racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud, extortion conspiracy and lying to federal agents.
Invitation to the jungle
The producers of the NBC reality show “I’m a Celebrity — Get Me Out of Here!” approached him about joining other celebrities in the Central American jungle for the “Survivor”-type show. He was to be paid $80,000 an episode. Among the other participants on the show are Sanjaya of “American Idol” fame and Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag of MTV's “The Hills.”
“It seemed like an exciting opportunity,” Blagojevich told Vieira. “I have two little girls. I have a mortgage to pay. Obviously, I’m looking for a new line of work as I work through the process of proving my innocence.”
On Tuesday, Blagojevich and his attorney tried to convince U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel to allow him to leave the country to participate in the show. Representatives of the reality show came to the hearing to tell the judge that NBC would provide around-the-clock security guards to ensure that the embattled politician could not flee prosecution.
“I do not have confidence that things will not go astray,” Zagel said in denying the request. The judge also said that it is more important for Blagojevich to concentrate on his defense against the charges, which carry a potential prison term of up to 30 years. “I don't think the defendant in all honesty fully understands … the position he finds himself in.”
Would he flee?
Vieira asked Blagojevich if he is a flight risk.
“The judge didn’t say that,” he replied. When Vieira said that’s what the judge’s declaration sounded like, he said, “I don’t think that was the basis of his decision. Whatever the case is, he’s made it clear I should not go to Costa Rica.”
Video: Blagojevich: ‘I’ll clear my name’ Blagojevich said he still may be able to participate in the show without going to Costa Rica.
“There may be a possibility to play a role in some capacity on this program,” he said, adding that he was to fly to Los Angeles after his TODAY Show appearance. “There may be, perhaps, some kind of role that may be available along the lines of this program.”
Blagojevich said being with the celebrities in the jungle would have been a kind of social laboratory.
“The idea of being in a jungle, toughing it out, sort of creating a little civil society with other people and seeing how you can govern that little society — it’s not unlike what it was like when I was governor of the fifth-largest state in America,” Blagojevich said.
The former governor also took issue with Zagel’s statement that he may not appreciate the gravity of the charges against him.
“In the meantime, I have to support my children, my family, and if that means going in a jungle and having to eat some bugs, it’s just a testament to how much I love my kids.”
Blagojevich repeatedly professed his innocence, accusing the media of “supersensationalization” in reporting on the charges against him. In addition to the allegation that he attempted to sell Obama’s Senate seat, he’s charged with trading state jobs, contracts and regulatory favors for campaign contributions. Slideshow: From state house to disgrace
The former governor claims to be essentially broke, and Zagel said he may allow Blagojevich to tap his $2.7-million campaign fund to pay his legal fees. The alternative is for Illinois taxpayers to foot the bill.
Blagojevich told Vieira he will continue to look for whatever work there is for indicted former governors.
“I’m not giving up pursuing other opportunities that may be available,” he said. “I need to make a living.”
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