Robert BlagojevichOn Monday, after jurors in the Blagojevich retrial delivered a nearly sweeping guilty verdict, I called the gov’s brother, Robert. Older than Rod by 16 months, Rob is a former banker, an Army veteran, and a serious man. He was also a co-defendant in Blago’s first trial, but in the wake of the deadlocked jury, the government dropped the charges against Rob. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation, in which he accuses U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald of “[poisoning] the jury pool and the media,” and says that the feds used him as a pawn in the first trial to get to his brother. Rob also expresses relief that his parents were not around to see the two siblings go through their legal battles.
CF: Have you spoken to your brother?
RB: I’m not commenting on [that]. I’m just going to keep that between us. [The Sun-Times reports that the brothers did not speak on Monday, but that Rob sent Rod a text message.]
CF: You told the hosts of a local radio show here that you intended to make an appearance at Rod’s retrial, but you didn’t.
RB: I was strongly advised by my attorney not to come to Chicago. I was asked to testify by Rod’s lawyers and I wanted to do that, but Mike [attorney Michael Ettinger] advised me not to because of the way the government dismissed its charges against me—without prejudice, which means they could re-indict me on whatever pretense they could find, or if I somehow was inconsistent in my testimony from the previous trial they would charge me with perjury.
CF: What did you think of your brother’s representation?
RB: I totally commend Shelly Sorosky for stepping up as a friend and a lawyer for my brother. He’s is a special person who did the best he could … with limited resources. Shelly to me is a family hero. They [Sorosky, Aaron Goldstein and Lauren Kaeseberg] threw themselves into it.
CF: You’ve referred several times to the nightmare of fighting the feds. In what way was it a nightmare?
RB: The government wages a war of attrition on you. When I was indicted they knew that I had some financial flexibility; they knew because they eavesdropped on my … conversations with my financial advisor. I believe part of their reasoning in indicting me was they would eliminate me as a possible source to help Rod. I felt I was being used as a pawn to get my brother to plead because they had come to us asking for a global solution.
CF: What do you mean by “global solution?”
RB: My attorney had a conversation with the lead prosecutor. And [the prosecutor] said, “We’ve got the governor, but your guy can win.” That was shocking to me when I heard that; when they’re telling my lawyer I can win, why would they indict me? Michael explained to me that he [replied], “Well he’s not going to plead to felony charges. He didn’t break the law. He’ll start talking to you at the misdemeanor level, and the prosecutor said, “You know we can’t do that,” and Mike said, “Yes you can.” [The prosecutor’s] answer was, “We’re looking for a global solution. We’d like the brothers to talk and figure this out between the two of them.”
CF: So you’re not crazy about the prosecutor. What about his boss, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald?
RB: I think it’s best for me not to comment right now; I’m just too raw. I will comment on the press conference [from the morning of Blago’s arrest in 2008, when Fitzpatrick referred to the need to stop a “political corruption crime spree” and noted that Blago’s conduct “would make Lincoln roll over in his grave”] because that affected me directly. Fitzpatrick polluted—actually poisoned—the jury pool and the media. Here’s one of the many things I’ve learned out of this experience: the government is not always right, and we as American citizens have got to be very mindful of the its power so they don’t … use it against us. These prosecutors have gotten more than their pound of flesh from [Rod], a guy who did not make a dime off of this—who was not intending, in my opinion, to make a dime off of it while he was in office. He was a politician trying to cut deals that had been cut since before our Constitution was forged.
[NOTE: A request for comment from the U.S. Attorney’s office here, specifically from Fitzpatrick and Reid Schar, was declined by spokesman Randall Samborn.]
CF: Your thoughts on Judge Zagel?
RB: I believe based on news accounts I’ve read that there’s a strong argument for an appeal given how the judge presided over this second trial. I know what he was like during the first trial, and it sounds like he was even less objective on this one.
CF: What advice would you give to Rod now?
RB: Now’s the time for Rod to re-evaluate. This is a life-altering experience, and Rod now has to re-evaluate where he is—come to grips with certain realities. He’s a fighter. He won’t quit fighting, and he’ll use the legal system as best he can to continue to fight.
CF: So you’re in Nashville [Rob and wife Julie moved back there last summer], and you tell me you’re disillusioned with the news media and you get your news mostly from the Web. Did you follow your brother’s trial by reading the Sun-Times and Tribune online?
RB: Yes, of the two, I found the Sun-Times to be very objective and balanced in how they reported this whole thing—and the Tribune less so. Carol Marin was very objective and fair. [Eric] Zorn and John Kass—the opinion I have of them is so low I’m not going to even comment on that.
CF: You hadn’t been close to your brother, so why did you agree to fundraise for him?
RB: I was planning on leaving the corporate world [in 2003, he was an executive with the Fifth Third Bank] and going into business for myself. I own apartment complexes in three states, and I own a commercial property in another state. I’ve got managers running each of my properties, so it allowed me flexibility. Julie and I were up in Chicago visiting our son [Alex Blagojevich lives here and works as a commercial real estate broker], and Rod asked me to come to the house and asked me if I would consider fundraising for him. He had no one else he could trust. Julie encouraged me to do it. I was disinclined because the last thing I wanted to do was make cold calls to people. Julie said, “This is a chance for you to get closer to your brother,” who she believed really had no clue who I was or had no appreciation for what I may or may not have achieved in life at that point. She thought my parents would think that would be a neat thing for me to do.
CF: How’s Julie doing?
RB: [She] never one time wavered in her belief in me and worked real hard in doing transcriptions of the tapes, when I could not bear to listen to them. She would sit there with the headphones on so I didn’t have to listen, and she would transcribe for hours and hours so it would save us money and help our case. We go through the rhythms and patterns of life and routines of life, but this doesn’t leave you.
CF: Do you think much about your parents these days?
RB: All the time. One memory I have is when Rod and I are standing in front of Zagel being arraigned in April 2009, and they’re reading whatever they read to us because it’s a blur to me, but they’re naming our names. And I’m thinking about my mom and dad how they would be processing this, and for the first time, I’m glad that they had passed and wouldn’t have to endure what we were about to have to endure together.
CF: Why didn’t Rod just serve out his second term and take a job with one of the big law firms? They love to hire politicians and they pay them big bucks.
RB: I can’t answer that. My brother is motivated sometimes by just visceral instinct and response. I think he was feeling left behind by the Obama train that was going to Washington.
CF: One thing I’ve noticed is that, in all those hundreds of hours of tapes that we’ve heard or read, neither you nor your brother ever said anything that was racist or anti-Semitic.
RB: You’re the first person who has brought that up to me. We were raised to be unbiased and judge people not by accident of birth but on the merits of their character. My parents would be proud to hear that. There’s another thing: neither one of us was cheating on our wives.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune