I know the Blago brothers because, over the years, I have interviewed both of them. I spent a lot of time with the newly elected Gov. Rod in 2003 for a profile of the rookie governor whose political career seemed, back then, boundless. I interviewed his older brother, Robert, for the same piece. When I learned that Robert was writing a book, Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice (Northern Illinois University Press, out April 2015), I decided to revisit the family. [Note: NIU Press sent me an advance copy of the book for this review.]
The brothers share the same Chicago blue-collar, immigrant roots, but not much else. Rod, imprisoned in Colorado and appealing his 14-year sentence, seemed to me a goofball, a child/man, undisciplined, and trapped by vanity, laziness, envy, and selfishness. Robert is serious, an army veteran (22 years of active duty and reserve service), a banker, a small businessman, and a volunteer.
At Rod’s request, Robert had moved to Chicago from Nashville in August, 2008 to work for five months fundraising for the governor’s probable 2010 reelection. Robert’s marching order from his brother was to raise $2 million by the end of 2008 in order to “scare off opposition in his own party.” According to Robert, he accepted the short-term challenge as a way to repair a relationship that had become increasingly distant.
In the early morning of December 9, 2008, FBI agents arrested Rod at his house. At the same time, two agents showed up at Robert’s condo—“two men in trench coats flashing badges,” Robert writes in the book. They handed him subpoenas demanding they be let into the Friends of Blagojevich (FOB) offices. If he doesn’t comply, they tell him, they will break down the door. Later that day, Rod and Patti and their daughters arrive at Robert’s condo. While the governor and his family wait for his uncharacteristically tardy state troopers to pick them up, “I remember thinking that Rod and Patti reminded me of Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra, because it seemed to me that everyone had abandoned them.”
In April, 2009, after the feds indicted both brothers on various charges—the most dramatic of which was attempting to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder—I got back in touch with Robert, and I’ve kept in touch with him, sporadically, ever since.
In the case brought against the Blago brothers by former U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and a trio of smart prosecutors backed up by FBI and IRS agents, Robert was “Fundraiser A”—hence his book’s title, Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice. Robert describes how the feds turned and tightened the screws on him, hoping that Robert would turn on Rod and guarantee that the governor would go to prison for a long time. Robert portrays himself as a pawn, collateral damage in an 18-month-long ordeal. He accuses the government of “play[ing] chicken with my life…” Nearly every page reeks of the anxiety that he and his wife and son suffered as Robert struggled to keep his focus and to prepare to testify. In the meantime, his business records and later his tax returns for multiple years were subpoenaed by the FBI/IRS.
Although Robert claims to love his brother, the former governor and (to a lesser extent) his wife, Patti, come across with few redeeming qualities. They apparently lied to Robert and Julie when, in July 2008, in persuading Robert to take the job, they claimed that the federal investigations were “behind them.” Robert never got the apology he sought from Rod for drawing him into the maelstrom. Rod told him repeatedly that he shouldn’t worry because the feds were after the governor, not his brother. In Robert’s telling, Rod’s affect is an odd, “What, me worry?” One of Rod’s lawyers later tells Robert that Rod is in “la-la land.” Robert writes that he came to fear that his brother was “missing something in his personality.”
The judge, James B. Zagel, seemed to Robert (and to me also as I closely followed the case) to be wildly pro-prosecution, to display “unconditional support of the government.” Judge Zagel was also repeatedly late to court—an average of 40 minutes every session—irritating Robert, who put a high value on punctuality. Zagel’s tardiness, Robert calculated, cost him an additional $15,000 in lawyers’ fees.
Money was going out the door while little was coming in as Robert and Julie devoted themselves to trial prep. Robert figured out one dark day that they had already spent $650,000 on legal fees. They liquidated their IRAs and put a second mortgage on their Nashville house.
Fortunately for Robert, he had a good attorney, a man named Michael Ettinger, who kept his office in Palos Heights and schooled Robert in the ways of the feds. Ettinger told him, Robert writes, to view the feds as the enemy—a group of “self-righteous, zealot extremists” who would “stop at nothing to prevail.” The meticulous Robert was at first appalled by his lawyer’s messy conference room, his inability to find a sample of jury instructions, and his Columbo-like persona—the “disarray and lack of organization were disconcerting.” But Robert came to respect Ettinger’s judgment and Fundraiser A reads like a tribute to Ettinger and his younger colleagues.
The Blago brothers quickly discovered that the FBI, starting in late October, 2008, had planted multiple bugs—including some in the conference room in the FOB office—and were taping their conversations. Robert writes that he arranged for a cable tech out to figure out why he wasn’t getting a signal on the conference room television. The tech couldn’t fix it. Robert later figured out that the FBI “disrupted the signal through the television cable with an eavesdropping bug.”
After his impeachment, Rod kept busy going on every television show that would have him—Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Larry King Live, The View—and, according to Robert, paid little attention to trial prep. Rod hadn’t yet listened, for example, to any of the taped calls. Robert, on the other hand, forced himself to listen to the “400 hours of wiretapped conversations” that related to the charges against him. To save money, Julie transcribed the tapes, and lost her composure when she realized she was listening to her own private conversation with her husband.
In August 2010, after the jury deadlocked on all four of Robert’s counts, the government immediately pledged to retry the case. To Robert, a retrial meant his peace of mind and his finances would spiral down even more. He and Julie decided to return to Nashville to sell their house and liquidate his business. They needed to do so “in order to fund the upcoming retrial.”
The story has somewhat of a happy ending. Later that same August, Ettinger attended a hearing to set the date for the retrial. Robert and Julie were waiting at their son’s condo to learn the date before driving back to Nashville to get going on their sad task of unraveling their assets. While waiting, Robert fixed a plugged bathroom drain. His phone pinged with a text from Ettinger: “It’s done, it’s over, the government dropped all charges. You’re a free man!” The lead prosecutor had just told Ettinger that the “government had dismissed me from the case.”
In October, 2012, Robert traveled to Englewood, Colorado, to visit his brother in prison. The officer at the front desk told him that wouldn’t be possible “because Rod had not put me on this visitor list.”
If the dark saga were told from the perspective of the prosecution, it would be a different story, and in some respects Robert’s version is undoubtedly unfair to the government side. But there’s value in his telling. So much, I think, that his publisher ought to see about getting the short (200 pages), clearly written, jargon-free tale of woe into the curricula of both law schools and journalism schools. That way lawyers who try such cases and the journalists who cover them can get a feel for the misery inside the suit at the defense table.