Rob Blagojevich talks trial, Rod in book from NIU Press

By Kristin Maglabe

NIU Press will publish Robert Blagojevich’s account of his trial and estranged relationship with his brother, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, on Wednesday.

In 2010, Rod Blagojevich was put on trial and found guilty of trying to give President Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. In the process, Robert, Rod’s brother, was accused of being involved with selling the Senate seat.

On Aug. 26, 2010, the charges against Robert were dropped.

Five years later, Robert has told his story in his book, “Fundraiser A: My Fight for Freedom and Justice,” where he said he explains his experience with a federal trial against an “ambitious prosecutor.”

Q: Why did you choose NIU Press?

A: I’m very new to the publishing world. This is the only book I’ve ever written, so it became quite an adventure for me finding a publisher. We had sent the manuscript, along with a proposal, and other ancillary information to a number of publishers, and NIU was the first to pick it up.

I liked the positioning of the university in northern Illinois, which regionally is a good place because the book is for sure a regional Chicago story.

And it had a very good reputation, so I was comfortable that NIU Press, [NIU Press Director] Linda Manning and I could work out something that was interesting and beneficial to both the university and me personally as the author.

Q: What have you been doing … outside of working on the book since the trial ended?

A: My independence day was Aug. 26, 2010, at 11:01 in the morning, when I got a text from my lawyer telling me that the prosecutors had dropped their charges against me. So, my life was once again given back to me, and I was able to, over a period of time, readjust to what I had been accustomed to, which was running my small business.

I own a small company called Blagojevich Properties. I own multifamily apartments in the southeast. I’m an owner-operator, which means I’m semi-actively involved in the day-to-day business, but I have a management staff who deals with the property issues on site and so forth.

So, I’ve resumed my life taking care of my business and trying to improve it because it suffered significantly during my legal ordeal. The distraction we had at that time, and also a recession, and we had some unfortunate fires occur at a couple of the properties, so I’ve really had my hands full dealing with the trial, dealing with the bad economy and all kinds of property issues. But, we were able to kind of keep it together and are stronger than ever, thank goodness, and thanks for asking.

Q: Could you give us a short synopsis of ‘Fundraiser A?’

A: ‘Fundraiser A’ is a first-person narrative about what I experienced dealing with, to me, an over-reaching, unjust prosecution.

It starts with the four months that I fundraised for my brother, helping him raise campaign funds for his Friends of Blagojevich campaign organization, and goes through the day of my brother’s arrest and the morning that I was awoken at 6:21 [a.m.] by FBI agents flashing their badges and handing me a subpoena to turn over certain documents.

And then the roller coaster that began that same day when [former U.S. attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald made an announcement in a press conference, one I thought was very, very inappropriate, talking about [Abraham] Lincoln rolling over in his grave if he knew what was going on with the Senate seat, and he alleged that it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

And as I listened to his press conference, he referred, a couple of times, to Fundraiser A, and later in the day we received a criminal complaint that laid out the government’s case, and Fundraiser A was mentioned more than 30 times. And it dawned on me that, no, he’s talking about me. I’m Fundraiser A. And life changed for me forever.

We began preparing, which was inevitable, an indictment that came down in April of 2009, and then the preparation of getting ready for trial, going through all the wiretapped conversations of me with almost 2,000 conversations, 284 of which were with my wife and son, and a large number of them were just personal business calls. So, it was a very, very difficult time getting ready to go to trial.

We succeeded at trial, for the most part. The jury did not acquit me, they hung on the four charges that were ultimately left against me 9-3 in favor of acquittal, but the government, after consideration, and all of this is written in the book and hopefully in semi-interesting way for someone to read, they ultimately proposed to us, in a very interesting way, an offer at the end of the trial for me to accept a severance deal, which in the end, I did not accept, and it resulted in them dropping their charges against me on August 26 at 11:01 [a.m.] when I got the text from my lawyer.

So, it is my journey through the legal system: a target of an over-reaching prosecution by Patrick Fitzgerald, a then-U.S. attorney. … But, bottom line, it’s about over-reaching prosecution by an ambitious prosecutor who would indict anyone he thought he could use to win. And, in my case, he tried to use me as a hostage to get my brother to plead so that there would be no trial, and that just didn’t happen.

Q: What inspired you to get your story out there?

A: Well, really, three things. Shortly after the trial my wife had suggested that I write a memoir for our family so that there was a record of what I experienced and what I believed happened.

In the meantime, I began doing some public speaking in the Chicago area … telling my story. Every time I spoke, I was asked if I was writing a book about my experience.

And then the third impetus for me was my attorney, Michael Ettinger, strongly encouraging me to write my story because, in his opinion, and I’ve tried to verify this and I think he’s right, there is no memoir written by a former criminal defendant who was able to walk away with his freedom after a prosecution. The Department of Justice has a 95 percent success rate, so that means if you’re charged by the federal government, 95 percent of the time you are either going to plead guilty or you are going to lose in court. In my case, the government dropped their charges against me and allowed me to resume my life again.

That is a very, very unusual thing to happen, and he thought that was worth writing about. And so from all three of those inputs, I then chose to change from writing a memoir for my family to a manuscript that we shopped to publishers.

Q: Do you think that you were unfairly brought into the case?

A: … To me there is a lot of evidence to support the case that the government was using me. Which, if you look at other cases around the country over time, it is not unusual for federal prosecutors to involve family members in prosecutions in their attempt to get a sibling.

So, in this case, it was very clear that Patrick Fitzgerald wanted to bring down my brother, a [seated] governor of Illinois, while he was the U.S. attorney. I happened to be helping Rod out for a short period of time, four months, and was wiretapped, along with other people. And had anyone listened to all my wiretapped conversations, just like … the Department of Justice did, and the FBI agents who listened to those calls or read all the investigation reports of all of the people, the witnesses, they interviewed, they would see that I conducted myself properly, ethically.

I never offered a government benefit or contract in exchange for a campaign contribution, which is clearly illegal if you do that. That’s called a quid pro quo. I never did that, not even close.

… I was immoveable. I did the right thing every time. Particularly when nobody was listening, I could have done something improper, but I never did. So, it’s my assertion, and in the book I give a lot of background and insight to why I feel this way, that I was just used to try to get leverage against my brother, and that’s wrong. That’s unethical, that’s un-American, and that’s not something that I believed would happen in the United States of America, but it happened to me.

I was very fortunate to be part of that 5 percent who walked away with their freedom, and to tell my story, thanks to NIU Press.

Q: How would you say this whole ordeal impacted your relationship with your brother?

A: Anytime you go through a public, nationally covered trial, like Rod and I did, it’s a natural thing that there are going to be strains and stresses on a relationship, and that’s just what happened to us.

You get indicted by the federal government and you are facing a lot of years potentially in prison, if you are convicted, and that puts a lot of pressure on you to just get through the next day. It’s as simple as that. It was that way for me, and I knew it was for Rod as well.

And, unfortunately, Rod had a very different approach to the trial than mine that I didn’t think was complementary to how I thought it would be helpful for us both to get ready for the trial. And that created stresses and strains, and just overall being indicted on a national stage puts a lot of stress on our relationship.

As a result, we are currently estranged. I don’t have any contact with him. I’ve reached out to him numerous times, but I’m hopeful one day he’ll respond and I’m hopeful that someday he and I can sit down and talk about this, and try to get it behind us and move forward.

Q: So what’s next for you? Are you planning a book tour, are you planning on writing more books or do you just plan to move on after this?

A: I think it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be writing another book. Other than going through this trial and being indicted, really the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was writing a book, and the discipline and challenge it took putting it together and going through the publishing process is difficult.

So, it was not easy for me, and I really don’t know that there’s anything else I have to say that anyone would to listen to. My hope is that what I’ve written now, in ‘Fundraiser A,’ we begin promoting the book for the release [Wednesday], will create some energy and talk and possibly opportunities to speak about it and warn people about what can happen to them if they’re not careful and if we don’t hold out public officials accountable for their misdeeds.

I hope to talk about that, I hope to do some speaking at universities and colleges that might invite me.

But, beyond that, that’s as far as it’ll go for me on having published a book and promoted it. And then I’ll just continue to live my life and manage my business and enjoy the people around me, those that love me and care for me, and just try to move on with my life in a constructive, positive way.