You probably remember the sensational (and sometimes surreal) trial of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was impeached and tried on a buffet of corruption charges in 2009. The most scandalous charge was the alleged quid pro quo deal for the freshly vacated senate seat belonging to the new president, Barack Obama, in exchange for... well, whatever the Governor could get, according to the headlines. A scheme guaranteed to “make Abe Lincoln roll over in his grave” according to Patrick Fitzgerald, the Federal prosecutor who apparently uncovered the biggest crime wave in Chicago since Al Capone decided to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day.
Chicago politics have long been considered a blood sport, and a scandal involving politicians is not all that surprising. What made this scandal so enticing was that it involved Obama’s senate seat, a very colorful Governor who just couldn’t be made to feel bad, and the apparently brazen nature of the crimes. The media had a field day. The Governor became the target (and guest) of the late night comedians, while the prosecutors pouted and preened their way through the daily news cycles.
What this media circus fails to appreciate is that real people were involved. Real abuses of power did occur, and not necessarily by the defendants. Lives were shattered. And most of those responsible have, to this day, escaped justice.
Governor Blagojevich had a co-defendant. His brother, Robert. Robert is a private man. He shuns the spotlight, and so his story was overlooked, or he was confused with his brother, or the assumption was that they were equally guilty. And the assumption of guilt is a real one for both brothers. We like to think, we need to think, that our government does not make mistakes. Surely, if the government brings a case to trial, they have compelling evidence that criminal wrongdoing has occurred. And even more critically, we need to think that our Government does not abuse the almost-infinite power it holds over its citizens. We certainly underestimate its ability (and willingness) to manufacture a case from nothing, in order to further its own agenda. And that is exactly what happened to Rob.
A little background here: Rob and Rod Blagojevich were brought up in Chicago, by first generation Serbian immigrants. They were taught to work hard, to be honest, to be honorable, and to revere family. Rob was the elder: he followed those dictates to the letter. He is educated, successful, and serious. He served as a platoon leader on active duty in the army for over five years, and in the US Army Reserves for another 17 after that, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2001. He worked, with great success, first at a bank and later as the head of his own company for real estate investments. He is active in his community: he has served on the board of the Red Cross, with the YCAP program, and with Hurricane Katrina survivors. He gave the commencement speech to the University of Tampa (his Alma Mater) in 2008. He has been married for 30 plus years to an utterly delightful, erudite and discerning woman. They have raised a son, Alex, who is exactly the son that hard work, committed parenting and some good luck produces. These are two people who see that their greatest accomplishments lie in what they leave the world, the example they set, and the family and friends they surround themselves with.
The relationship between Rob and Rod has been strained at times. Rod, the younger brother, is more likely to depend on charm rather than hard work to get ahead. Rod is ebullient, while Rob is more reserved. Rod is comfortable wheeling and dealing in political halls. Rob builds long term relationships. Rod campaigns. Rob works. However, they are the only children of a very small family. After their parents died, they had only each other, and their own immediate families. And each of their parents had asked Rob to look after his brother. They knew Rod was a bit more childish, a bit weaker.
So when Rod asked Rob to be the fundraiser for his re-election bid, telling Rob that he was “the only one (Rod) could trust”, Rob felt he should help. Rod also told Rob that an investigation by the Federal government was behind him. After some hesitation, Rob agreed to help his brother, but decided to limit his term in the position. He would fundraise only until the end of the year, a four-month period.
What Rob had no way of know was that the government had not dropped the investigation. In fact, the office of Friends of Blagojevich and Robs own calls were being taped almost from the beginning of his involvement. And also from the beginning were the offers of bribes. Constituents offering to fundraise for Rob in exchange for certain considerations…a road built, an appointment, and ultimately the senate seat soon to be vacated by Barack Obama. This offer by Jessie Jackson Jr, through intermediaries, was the catalyst that led to the arrest and indictment of Governor Blagojevich and his brother. The fact that the hundreds of hours of transcriptions only show Rob denying the “pay for play deal” were meaningless to the Federal prosecutors.
The most chilling aspect of the book is that Rob shows what can happen when the Federal government decides that a person needs to be “proven” guilty. Please note, I did not say that the someone is guilty. In this case, that person is Rob Blagojevich. Determined to build a case against the Governor, the prosecutors felt that the most expeditious way to provide evidence was to have his friends, staff and family “flip” on Rod. They would offer reduced charges (usually on other matters), or in some cases immunity, for those who would testify to Rod’s criminality. For example: one trusted staffer, Chris Kelly, had a gambling problem. This resulted in some very serious tax complications when he attempted to resolve his gambling costs with creative accounting on his tax returns. In exchange for his testimony against Rod, his tax problems were taken care of. The fact that he later committed suicide was not considered important by his handlers. Three other friends of the Governor also testified against him in exchange for immunity or very light sentences on charges pending against them. Quid pro quo (literally “this for that”) deals don’t count if it’s the government offering them.
In Rob’s case, the Federal government felt that, even though Rob was innocent (as the hours and hours and hours of tapes clearly demonstrated), his arrest and indictment would either cause Rod to confess all, or the pressure on Robert would be so great that he would agree to whatever the Feds said about Rod in order to ease his own burden. A burden that almost anyone would do anything to set down. In addition to facing years in prison, the case almost bankrupted Rob. Rod's legal costs were paid for by his campaign war chest, Rob’s came out of his own pocket (although the judge could have relieved Rob of that burden). The security he and Julie had worked a lifetime to build was completely eroded; his health was compromised; his reputation damaged; and his business undermined because of the time and attention that the trial and preparation took. Rob lives in Nashville, TN. He and Julie had to travel to Chicago and stay there for the months of the trial.
The judge, James B. Zagel, did his part to make Rob’s life as difficult as possible, in order to keep the pressure on Rod. He denied Rob a separate trial. Given Rod’s propensity for courting the media, Rob felt that he needed to distance his case from Rods. The confusion over the two brothers (the similarity in first names was enough for most), and the length of time that the trial would take if tried together created real dangers and hardships for Rob. His personal funds could only stretch so far. Rob also asked the judge to allow his costs to come from the re-election funds as Rods were doing. The judge denied both requests. They needed the pressure to stay on. A side note on the judge. He was serially late for his own court. Sometimes as much as 40 minutes. Obviously as sign of disrespect. Rob once calculated that cost him an extra $15, 000 in legal fees. He paid for his attorneys to wait for the judge. All part of the pattern of abuses of power. Judges and prosecutors are elected or appointed. The politics of the case did not rest solely with the politicians.
Ultimately, the first trial resulted in a hung jury. The jury could not agree on the guilt or innocence of Rob or Rod. Fortunately, for Rob, the government, having decided finally that his usefulness in breaking Rod was limited, dropped the charges against him for the retrial. Importantly, for Rob, the charges having been dropped do not “declare him innocent”. They were dismissed “without prejudice” which means the government can refile the charges at any time. How would you like that hanging over your head? Serves to keep you in line a bit, doesn’t it? And having the charges dropped doesn’t mean you get the money, or the time, or your reputation back. Nobody apologizes. Rob quotes one statistic that is worthy of note: 96% of the cases that the Federal Government brings end in conviction. In a just world, in a free country, we could assume that is because they do such a great job at demonstrating the guilt of the parties in question. In fact, it is due to a war of attrition that the government will always win. They have unlimited resources of time, funds, attorneys and “the system” itself is rigged in favor of the prosecutors. Any defendant will ultimately break. Their funds, their health, their ability to withstand the pressure will all fail at some point. If we have reason to be concerned for the state of our legal system, and the abuses of our government, this is where we should begin. The disenfranchised can attest to this disparity all too well.
I urge everyone to read this book. It was Rob yesterday. It could be you tomorrow.
In the interest of full disclosure: I have the great good fortune to call Rob and Julie Blagojevich friends. Rob and my ex-husband are very dear friends, and through him I got to know them both. I don’t often see them now, but that certainly does not affect my deep respect and admiration for the pair, and for their son, Alex. It would be hard for me to list all their kindnesses to me and to my mother, who worked with Julie. I have never, at any time, seen either Rob or Julie act in a way that would bring dishonor to them. They have a code, and they live by it. They are private, responsible, and dedicated. As well as simply delightful fun. I know I am not alone in saying that when I heard Rob was in legal jeopardy, on attempted bribery charges, I actually laughed. I had to assume a joke of the broadest type. As the months went on, and the trial loomed, I knew without any doubt, that Rob would be vindicated. Like most people I assumed that the government had made a mistake, and they would correct this mistake, once they realized what a huge error they had made. And that of course, Robs name and property would be restored to him. This book chills me to my core. What it says about our real freedom, our belief in justice and fair play, and our trust in a benevolent government that protects us from the excesses of corruption is devastating.
Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice by Robert Blagojevich, 2015, Northern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0-87580-488-0