Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich referred to Mark Vargas as the “mystery man” that led the effort to get him out of prison.
Vargas is a Chicago-area native who utilized his connections in the White House and beyond to ultimately help convince President Donald Trump to commute the 14-year sentence of the former Illinois governor.
But who is Vargas? And why did he want to take on that case?
Vargas says he reached out to Patti Blagojevich on LinkedIn about two years ago, offering his services to help get Blagojevich’s case on the president’s radar. He says she was skeptical at first, but he was adamant that a Republican with connections in the White House would be Blagojevich’s only hope.
Vargas, a Republican and supporter of the president, said he was naturally drawn to the case of Blagojevich, a Democrat.
“I just thought that his 14-year sentence as a non-violent first time offender was absolutely outrageous, so I had this gravitational pull,” Vargas said Thursday on “Chicago Tonight.” “I told her I’d show some results first.”
Vargas says he wrote op-ed columns in the conservative publication The Washington Examiner (here’s one of them: “How Robert Mueller and James Comey’s Best Friend Sent Rod Blagojevich to Prison”). This line of argument would be used by Patti Blagojevich several times in appearances on Fox News, which Trump admitted to having watched and influenced by.
“It was Jim Comey’s best friend Patrick Fitzgerald. Robert Mueller – there were fingerprints on Rod Blagojevich’s case, and there were his fingerprints on President Trump’s case,” Vargas said. (Side note: Comey was not working at the Justice Department during the time of Blagojevich’s case, and Mueller had little if any involvement as head of the FBI. Fitzgerald led the case as the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois along with FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Grant.)
Vargas says his articles caught the attention of Jared Kushner, who helped put the commutation on the president’s agenda.
Vargas says the other key aspect of his plan was involving African American leaders, notably the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. That involvement was notable because Jackson has been sharply critical of the Trump administration, and Blagojevich professed his extreme dislike of Jackson Jr. in one of the wiretapped recordings, referring to him as a “bad guy.”
“The President and the White House has been focused on criminal justice reform, and Rev. Jackson has dedicated his entire life to criminal justice reform, and before Donald Trump was president, they were friends. They got along. Trump used to attend Rainbow PUSH events at the invitation of Jackson,” Vargas said.
Both Blagojevich and Vargas have made media rounds declaring the former governor’s innocence, repeating the misleading claim that an appeals court vacated the Senate seat convictions. The appellate court did vacate the convictions on a technicality, ruling that some of the schemes related to the selling of the Senate seat could be considered legal, but those designed to line the pockets of Blagojevich and his wife were not legal. The court ruled that Blagojevich could be retried on those counts, but prosecutors declined. That appellate court ruling also upheld his 14-year sentence.
We asked Vargas whether or not he and the former governor were angling for the president to grant a full pardon.
“That decision is going to be left to the president,” Vargas said. “Our number one priority was to get the former governor back home with his family. He’s missed a lot.”
Vargas grew up in St. Charles and graduated from Judson University in Elgin. He says he spent 12 years working in Washington, D.C., including as a civilian in the U.S. Department of Defense from 2007-2010. He says he has and will continue to work with Blagojevich on a pro bono basis.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz