Blago's Brother Free, But Testimony Showed He Was No Dope

Robert Blagojevich traveled in sophisticated circles. He likely knows very well what pay-to-play is, and knows too that politics permeates all relationships - personal and professional.

So when the career manager testified earlier this summer that he was a political neophyte who had no idea that his brother, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, had enlisted him in schemes that allegedly linked government action with fund raising, the testimony rang hollow.

At times with an earnest tone and at other times with belligerence and sarcasm, Robert spun a yarn about how he was merely following instructions from his brother and his aides when he asked for campaign cash from individuals who had pending state business, and when he reached out to an Indian-American businessman who had offered millions in exchange for the appointment of Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

There was absolutely no linkage to government action, he insisted. Just talk of political horse-trading. He was merely doing his job as the head of Friends of Blagojevich campaign, reaching out to prospective donors.

Wiretaps and other testimony painted a very different picture, which is why prosecutors' decision Thursday to not retry Robert is somewhat mysterious.

His case ended in a mistrial when jurors could not reach a unanimous verdict on charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit extortion and bribery, and attempted extortion. According to published reports, some jurors thought he was guilty. All of the charges related to the Senate seat, although prosecutors questioned Rob about other actions he took while he headed the campaign fund.

Some jurors also said they thought the case was a bit complicated, so perhaps prosecutors believe removing Robert from the case could simplify matters in the retrial of Rod, who was convicted of just one of 24 counts against him. Rod will be tried a second time early next year.

Some court observers and pundits seemed almost smitten by Robert Blagojevich, and maybe some jurors were too. He was articulate. He is handsome. His professional history is impressive - he earned the highest national security clearance from the U.S. Army, where he served for seven years; held management positions at banks; owns a real estate business, and, was a board member at the Red Cross where he chaired a fundraising campaign. And he never forgot to remind jurors and reporters that he was a loyal family man, mentioning his wife and son dozens of times in and out of court.

While his accomplished career is laudable, it is also evidence that he was likely savvy, not naïve, about what was happening around him during the few months he headed the campaign fund. Prosecutors allege that the brothers and others ran Friends of Blagojevich as a criminal enterprise, shaking down potential donors in exchange for contracts, jobs, legislation and the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

Robert's testimony on July 19 and 20 was largely overshadowed by Rod's announcement that he would not be testifying on his own behalf, even though he promised the world that he would take the stand.

It's worth a brief review. Under cross-examination by Assistant U.S. Atty. Christopher S. Niewoehner, Robert Blagojevich testified that he was strategizing with his brother about who to appoint to the Senate seat after then President elect Obama had indicated his preference for Valerie Jarrett. In the context of that conversation, Robert told his brother that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of Rod is the "sword" hanging over his head. Robert suggested that Obama could get Fitzgerald to close the criminal investigation against his brother.

That doesn't exactly sound like the thinking of someone who is politically naïve.

"The way that was going to happen is if your brother was going to appoint Valerie Jarrett," Niewoehner said.

"Not in my mind," Robert said.

"So, it was completely unrelated?" Niewoehner said.

"Yes," Robert said, adding he was thinking in terms of "political horse-trading."

But trading for what?

In the same Nov. 5, 2008 conversation with his brother, he asks him if he was going to horse trade with Obama or just make the appointment. But then he insisted during his testimony he wasn't talking about trading something of value for the Valerie Jarrett appointment, even though his brother had talked about getting all sorts of perks for the appointment - money in a foundation he would control, an ambassadorship, an appointment to head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a job for his wife. Rod had talked about all this with his brother, but, no, Robert didn't discuss favors in exchange for the appointment, he testified.

The tapes suggested otherwise.

There was the time Robert passed on a message to his brother that a lawyer from a large Chicago firm wouldn't cough up a $7,500 contribution because the lawyer wasn't getting any state bond business.

He testified that he was a bit hazy about the details of a $10 million grant to Children's Memorial Hospital that his brother approved just days before instructing Robert to call the CEO of the hospital and ask for a $25,000 campaign contribution. Robert testified he he made the ask to hospital CEO Patrick Magoon but was rebuffed, he testified. He tried calling Magoon three more times, but Magoon wouldn't take his calls and Robert gave up.

And finally there was testimony about Rod's decision in early December, 2008, to elevate Jackson, Jr., as a serious candidate for the Senate seat. This decision came after Robert informed his brother than an Indian-American businessman had offered millions in campaign contributions if Jackson would be appointed.

On Dec. 4, 2008, Rod instructed Robert to call the businessman and tell him "if there's tangible political support, start showing it now," and "you got to be careful how you express it." Rod also told his brother to be discreet, to meet in person, "pretend the whole world is listening."

In testimony, Robert alternates between saying there was no link between fundraising and the Senate appointment, and conceding that perhaps his brother was talking about fundraising.

Ten minutes later, he called the businessman and set up an appointment.

"Is it fair to say your understanding of the (Dec. 4) conversation kind of goes in and out," Niewoehner asks.

"Very fair," Robert said.

Still, he made the call and eventually met with the businessman.

Robert's claims of being clueless likely did not persuade some of the jurors.

Ironically, it was Rod's defense lawyer who said in opening statements that his client was a bit of a dunce surrounded by professionals far more sophisticated who were pulling his strings and running the state like a racket.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago has an astounding win rate. Of the cases brought in 2009, the government won 94 percent of them - mostly by plea agreements. This year to date, the win rate is 95 percent.

Prosecutors certainly could have afforded to roll the dice on Robert a second time, streamlining its case to make it less complex. They likely have good reasons to extract Robert from four of the 24-count indictment. Maybe those reasons will become clearer during Rod's retrial.