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On trial together, Blagojevich brothers seem worlds apart

Relationship between them appears strained

By Michael Tarm
Associated Press / July 6, 2010

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CHICAGO — Rod Blagojevich’s friends scattered as investigators looking into his doomed Illinois governorship closed in. Some associates had already been indicted; others stopped returning calls.

So when the Democrat needed a campaign fund manager, he turned to someone who had stood with him on the sometimes mean Chicago streets where they grew up: his big brother Robert.

Now, Robert Blagojevich sits with his lone sibling in a court, a codefendant expected to take the stand and try to convince jurors he had nothing to do with alleged schemes to parlay his brother’s powers as governor into personal gain.

The two are rarely seen speaking and they eat at separate cafeteria tables during trial lunch breaks.

“Their relationship — it’s strained,’’ Robert’s attorney, Michael Ettinger, said last week. “But he still loves his brother.’’

Robert Blagojevich was a Republican, a successful banker and retired Army officer living comfortably in Nashville with his wife of 32 years. But he agreed to start working for Rod in August of 2008, his attorney says, because his mother, Millie, had beseeched her boys to stick together.

“ ‘When your parents are gone, all you’ll have is each other,’ ’’ the retired subway ticket agent told them before she died in 1999, Ettinger explained.

That brotherly bond threatened to break just four months after Robert accepted the managerial job: Rod Blagojevich was arrested at home and led away in handcuffs; Robert was also soon charged.

The most serious allegation is that the former governor, with his brother’s help, schemed to trade the US Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama for a Cabinet post or other top job. Rod Blagojevich faces 24 counts related to that and other alleged corruption. Robert faces five, all related to the Senate seat. Both pleaded not guilty.

When he begins Robert’s defense, Ettinger said, he’ll call just two witnesses: Robert and his wife, Julie. Rod’s attorneys, working independently from Robert’s, said the impeached governor and his wife also will testify.

In some ways, Robert cuts a more sympathetic figure than his brother.

The 53-year-old Rod, a seemingly perpetual campaigner and recent reality TV star, seems oddly cheerful at trial. He glides through Chicago’s federal courthouse smiling irrepressibly, chatting, and glad-handing passers-by.

Robert, a year older, is subdued, often walking to court alone. Strain is etched on his face.

By all accounts, the brothers were close growing up in a blue-color neighborhood with Serbian-American parents. Rod writes fondly of Robert in his 2009 book, “The Governor.’’

But Ettinger said they drifted apart.

Rod went on to study law and harnessed his natural skills at working a room. He was elected to Congress in 1996 with the help of his politically powerful father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell. He was elected governor twice.

The bookish Robert studied history in college, then joined the Army for five years of active service, overseeing nuclear missiles in Germany. He continued to serve as a civilian in the Reserves, reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Ettinger said Robert Blagojevich isn’t granting interviews, but last year he told the Chicago Sun-Times how he felt at hearing news of his brother’s arrest on Dec. 9, 2008.

“We sat there in horror, numb and horrified at what had happened,’’ he said.

He was charged soon after, accused of playing a role only at the tail end of an alleged seven-year corruption spree.

Ettinger argued unsuccessfully to have Robert tried separately, saying jurors would be unable to fairly assess his guilt or innocence when the overwhelming majority of evidence applied to Rod.

Robert Blagojevich’s attorneys have cross-examined only a few witnesses at the trial that’s heading into its second month. They’ve tried to stress his relative unimportance working for Rod.

The most sensational evidence — secretly recorded FBI wiretaps — features Rod, rarely Robert.

In Robert’s few appearances, he’s usually mild-mannered. But one conversation recorded before Rod’s arrest displayed tension between the brothers, as Rod tossed out ideas about the Senate appointment. Robert sounds incredulous when Rod says he could appoint an ally, then later ask that person to resign and let him take the seat.

“Oh, Jesus, that’s ugly!’’ Robert responds.

“What are you, nuts?’’ Rod shoots back. “What’s uglier? That or being impeached?’’

Another recording did catch a fleeting moment of levity. As they speak about contributions, Robert pauses to tell Rod that a potential contributor’s wife “loves our hair.’’

“Loves your hair and loves my hair — because it’s all real,’’ he says, and they both laugh.

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