President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he had commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, the former Democratic governor of Illinois convicted of corruption for trying to sell former President Barack Obama's vacated US Senate seat.
Blagojevich, who appeared on Mr Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" reality television show in 2010 while awaiting trial, had been serving a 14-year sentence after being convicted of wire fraud, extortion and soliciting bribes while governor.
"That was a tremendously powerful, ridiculous sentence," said Mr Trump, a real estate developer who produced the show before running for the Republican presidential nomination.
Within hours, the Chicago Tribune quoted a U.S. Bureau of Prisons statement saying Blagojevich "is no longer in custody" at a federal detention center in Colorado.
Blagojevich, 63, was removed from office in 2009 after prosecutors said he had tried to sell or trade the US Senate seat that Mr Obama vacated after winning the 2008 presidential election.
The Supreme Court in 2018 rejected a bid by Blagojevich to get his sentence reduced. It had been scheduled to run until 2026 - six years from now.
The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday night posted a photo of thesilver-haired Blagojevich at Denver International Airport, where he later boarded a plane for Chicago. Blagojevich was famously fastidious about his dark hair as governor, but it went all white because hair dyes are banned in prison.
Promising he will have more to say in a Wednesday news conference, Blagojevich told WGN-TV he appreciated the president's action.
"I'm profoundly grateful to President Trump and it's a profound and everlasting gratitude," Blagojevich said. "He didn't have to do this, he's a Republican president and I was a Democratic governor. I'll have a lot more to say tomorrow."
Blagojevich wouldn't say what plans he had for the future, however he did talk a bit about his time in prison.
"I've learned a lot about the criminal justice system, how unfair it can be, how unjust it is to people of color," he said. "I've drawn closer to God. There is divine intervention in all of this."
Blagojevich said he heard about his commutation when other inmates told him they saw it on the news," he said, adding that he "had no inkling it was coming."
The former governor told ABC-TV Chicago that his future plans are to "turn evil into good."
"I'm going to fight against the corrupt criminal justice system that all too often persecutes and prosecutes people who did nothing wrong, who over-sentences people, show no mercy, and who are in positions who have no accountability," Blagojevich said. "They can do whatever they want. They can put you into prison for things that aren't crimes."
Blagojevich, a Democrat, has tried to cast himself as a victim of an overzealous and politically motivated prosecution by federal law enforcement, an accusation sure to resonate with Trump and his supporters.
"Some in the Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation are abusing their power to criminalize the routine practices of politics and government," Blagojevich wrote in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal in May 2018.
"I learned the hard way what happens when an investigation comes up empty after the government has invested time, resources and manpower. When they can't prove a crime, they create one," he added.
Mr Trump also pardoned former NYPD commissioner Bernie Kerik and granted clemency to financier Michael Milken, who pleaded guilty for violating US. securities laws. Kerik served just over three years for tax fraud and lying to the White House.
When Mr Trump publicly broached the idea in May 2018 of intervening to free Blagojevich, he downplayed the former governor's crimes. He said Blagojevich was convicted for "being stupid, saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say." He said Blagojevich's sentence was too harsh.
Prosecutors have balked at the notion long fostered by Blagojevich that he engaged in common political horse-trading and was a victim of an overzealous US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald. Mr Fitzgerald said after Blagojevich's arrest that the governor had gone on "a political corruption crime spree" that would make Abraham Lincoln turn over in his grave.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller - a subject of Mr Trump's derision - was the FBI director during the investigation into Blagojevich. Mr Fitzgerald is now a private attorney for another former FBI director, James Comey, whom Mr Trump dismissed from the agency in May 2017.
Mr Trump also expressed some sympathy for Blagojevich when he appeared on "Celebrity Apprentice" in 2010 before his first corruption trial started. As Mr Trump "fired" Blagojevich as a contestant, he praised him for how he was fighting his criminal case, telling him: "You have a hell of a lot of guts."
He later poll-tested the matter, asking for a show of hands of those who supported clemency at an October, 2019 fundraiser at his Chicago hotel. Most of the 200 to 300 attendees raised their hands, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing several people at the event.