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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Rob Blagojevich: Jesse Jackson, Jr. ‘Got Away with a Federal Crime’

The brother of the indicted former governor also wonders why Rod’s appeal is taking so long.

 Photo: Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune

I first spoke to Robert Blagojevich in 2003, when I was writing a profile of his brother, whose future looked so sunny it seemed plausible that Gov. Rod Blagojevich someday could rise to become president—or, at least, vice president. Rob, now 59, and I continued to talk over the years as things turned dark for the Blagojevich family, as he and his younger brother, the impeached second-term governor, suffered through indictments and a grueling first trial. The feds eventually dropped charges against Rob, but retried Rod and dispatched him to a federal penitentiary in Littleton, Colorado to serve a 14-year sentence.

Visiting Chicago from his home in Nashville last week to promote his book, Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice, Rob told me of his continuing struggle to recover from the nightmare of life in the crosshairs of a federal indictment and trial; about his estrangement from his brother; about the appeal of Rod’s sentence that Rob says has dragged on far too long; and about his failed attempts to force former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. to pay for what Rob charges is Jackson’s attempt to buy Barack Obama’s Senate seat. It particularly frosts Rob that Jackson is about to be released from a halfway house in Baltimore after serving considerably less than his 30-month sentence on charges of spending $750,000 of campaign cash on personal items. Rod, on the other hand, still has eleven years to go on his sentence.

Here’s an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

I have to start with a question on what went through your head when you watched Dennis Hastert arrive at the Dirksen Building for his arraignment.

I didn’t watch it, I read about it later… First of all he made a big mistake. He talked to the FBI and he was indicted on lying to investigators. And the first lesson I learned from my lawyer in this whole criminal justice game is you never talk to the government. You take the Fifth Amendment, because they’re not your friends. You won’t have all the info at hand that they might have and you’re not prepared. You say something under oath and it can be used against you. In this case, they indicted Hastert not for what he allegedly did decades ago, but for lying to investigators. When I told my lawyer [during my trial], “Look, this is a big mistake, just let me just go in there and clear this up with them. I have nothing to hide,” he told me that it’s not about justice and getting to the truth; it’s about winning. The government is not your friend; it’s your enemy.

What do you think happened when Hastert was led into rooms in the Dirksen Building that the press couldn’t enter?

First, where I really sympathize, he has now completely lost control of his life. He is now part of a system where I ultimately felt like I was a cork adrift in the ocean. Here’s what he went through once he entered the building through the throng of howling reporters. He met with a case officer. He disclosed to that case officer all his financial information. He had to be mug-shot by the FBI and fingerprinted by the FBI and the U.S. Marshals. In my case, even though the judge asked, “Are you taking any drugs?” and I said no, I ended up having to give a urine sample. You go into this men’s room with a male case officer, who hands you a cup. There are mirrors around the comode, and you’re thinking, “What happened here in my life?” In my case, the case officer turned his back and gave me some privacy. I’m sure that the only sample Denny Hastert ever gave up to this point was to his doctor.

You have told me previously that you felt the judge, [U.S. District Judge] James Zagel, who presided over your and Rod’s trial was biased.

I believed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and assumed we had the best judiciary system in the world. What I came to learn was that a lot of these federal judges come out of a background in law enforcement; they’re products of a system to which they become servants of and very partial toward the government and the prosecution. Rulings are nine out of ten times pro-prosecution. The average person, which I consider myself, would say, “That judge isn’t being fair. He has helped the prosecutors and and he’s making it very difficult on the defense.” 

You learned that the government bugged your phones and captured not only business calls but personal ones, too. Do you think about that when you make or take calls today?

I have not changed the cell phone number that they wiretapped. I still have the same phone. What I often find myself saying—usually to a friend—is “Fuck you if you’re listening” because I am aware that the government may be listening. You need to be careful what you say on the telephone, what you write in emails, texts, anything electronically because the government likely may be listening and following you.

So the government could come back and prosecute you?

Right. The government dropped the charges without prejudice. The statute of limitations ends on August 26th of this year. It’ll be five years.

What will you do this August 26 on the day the statute of limitations runs out?

August 26, 2015 is my new personal independence day. Yes, we’re going to celebrate.

How has your life changed since 2010 when you received a text from your lawyer that the government dropped the charges and you’re a free man.

We [wife Julie and son Alex] got our life back. That was something. We had financial challenges we had to work through and it took me almost two years to reconcile that according to my lawyer, Mike Ettinger, we had won. I wasn’t acquitted. The jury was hung 9-3 in favor of acquittal, but did not acquit. Mike told me they don’t drop charges like this. You are a rare person to walk away with your freedom. You should be happy about this. We maneuvered around offers, around strategies that the government was trying to use to defeat us and we won because they realized I was no longer of use to them and they cynically let me go. I went through a personal challenge I would wish on no one. And I’m very proud of my wife and my son for the unwavering, brave support, and I’m proud of how I managed myself through the uncertainty. 

What’s going on with Rod, and with his appeal?

Rod’s appeals lawyer is a Chicagoan named Leonard Goodman. He has said that a typical appeal should take four to six months; this is going on 18 months. Goodman argued the appeal [before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit] on December 13, 2013. He said this is highly unusual.

(Ed. note: You can read the appeal here.)

Who hired Goodman and how is Rod able to pay him?

Shelly Sorosky [Rod’s lead lawyer] knew him and he referred him to Rod. I think Goodman is doing it pro bono.

Why would Goodman do that?

I think he’s in a financial position that he can do it. He believes in Rod’s case.

You write in your book that when you traveled to Colorado from Nashville in October 2012 to visit Rod, you couldn’t get by the officer at the desk because Rod hadn’t put your name on a list of approved visitors. Has anything changed?

Rod and I are still not talking. All throughout the writing of the book, which second to being indicted was the hardest thing I’ve ever done [because] I’m not a writer—one of the things that bothered me about what I was writing was that I was using in the book the conversations and interactions that Rod and I had privately. It bothers me to make them public. There were numerous times along the way when I’d say to Julie, “I don’t think I ought to do this.” Last November was my latest confidence crisis. I told Julie, “I don’t know if I want to continue on with this.” The April [2015] publication date was around the corner. So Julie suggested, “Why don’t you write to your brother? Tell him that you’re writing a book and that you’re revealing personal conversations and that you want to talk to him about it.” So I wrote him, I mailed the letter in early November and I’ve never heard back from Rod. So now that hesitation is behind me. He had a chance.

Did you send him the book?

No, I didn’t. Rod is still ever present in my daily thinking, but I just don’t think he’d be moved by it.

Are you in touch with Patti? Has she read it?

I don’t know if she’s read it. We have not had any communication. [Actually, they had one, but Rob put it off the record, and it was short, not revealing, and unclear if it was sincere or sarcastic.]

You have told me that you take pleasure that people who see you in your day-to-day life remark that you don’t seem bitter. But you do sound bitter on the subject of Jesse Jackson, Jr.

He’s the guy who got away with a federal crime. [Former U.S. Attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald and Robert Grant [Special Agent in Charge of the Chicago FBI who oversaw the Blago investigation] both knew that Jackson was at the center of [the selling of the Senate seat).

Why did Jackson get away with it?

I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Fitzgerald didn’t go after him but he should have. Robert Grant didn’t and should have. It just didn’t suit their agenda. And again, it was selective prosecution and agenda-driven in the case of going after Rod, and overreaching on other people whose lives have been ultimately, potentially destroyed. In my case they thought I would surrender to the system and plead out and give them what they needed against Rod. 

After the government dropped charges against you and while Jackson was still in Congress, you contacted the House Ethics Committee and offered to testify.

Julie read me something she read on the internet that the House Ethics Committee was reconvening its investigation of Jackson. I looked it up on the internet and I called the office. I got the receptionist. I said, “I’m Robert Blagojevich. I’d like to come testify.” I got a call back from the lead lawyer, but before he called me back, I sent letters to all ten of the representatives on the committee—five Republicans and five Democrats—explaining to them who I was and why I was reaching out to them and that I wanted to help them in their investigation of Jackson. I got a call and they arranged for me to come to Washington in April 2012. I spent three and a half hours answering their questions. No congressmen were there, just the legal staff. I told them everything that I’ve written in my book and nothing ever happened. He got what he deserved for stealing money but he still hasn’t gotten what he deserved for trying to buy the Senate seat. That’s why I said he should man up. [Once Jackson resigned from Congress, the Ethics Committee, according to the rules, dropped its investigation.]

The thing that continues to perplex me about Rod is why didn’t he just stay clean while governor, serve out his terms, and one of the big law firms here would have hired him, paid him seven figures and given him a driver?

Rod in my experience with him was never motivated by money. He’s a complex person. He enjoyed the political arena. He did it well on certain levels that others would say he didn’t. He was ambitious as a politician, and he kind of felt frustrated in Illinois. What I learned is that after we were indicted, nobody stood up for him. He had no friends. I had friends and they helped me. I felt bad for Rod that everyone had abandoned him or flipped. His friend from law school flipped, he pled, they all pled against him because they were compromised in some way or another.

Rod always wanted to do bigger, better things I guess he felt that in Illinois those things had run out. He was feeling left behind which is why he had conversations with me about possibly lobbying for him to get the cabinet position of Secretary of Health and Human Services. They played wire taps at trial, and said to me, "Here you’re trying to get your brother to parlay the Senate seat into a position at HHS.” I said, “Look, he was qualified for that. He had this All Kids program. He did a lot of things in the health care arena. If he asked me to help him become secretary of defense I would have laughed at him. That’s the kind of conversation I had with Rod. Where’s the line between political horse trading and political corruption? My thought was, always, that’s what politicians did. They did these kinds of things because it was politically useful. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that.

Do you hear anything through Rod’s lawyers about his life in prison?

I know he’s reading a lot. I know he’s teaching a class. I don’t know if it’s on a wiretap, but I told him you’d be a great professor. Why don’t you just live out your term and go teach. So much knowledge, you love to read, you’d be great.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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