Tried together, Blagojevich brothers often apart

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CHICAGO (AP) — 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 co-defendant 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, 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 U.S. 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 says he’ll call just two witnesses: Robert and his wife, Julie. Rod’s attorneys, working independently from Robert’s, say the impeached governor and his wife also will testify.

In some ways, Robert cuts a more sympathetic figure than his famously helmet-haired 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.”

He tells the story of how 7-year-old Robert once confessed to drinking a shot of whiskey, though only after being egged on by other boys. When Robert got a spanking, Rod spoke up for him, and got one too.

But Ettinger said they drifted apart as they got older.

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. After that, 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 currently granting interviews, but last year, he told the Chicago Sun-Times how he felt 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 not long 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 only cross-examined a few witnesses at the trial that’s heading into its second month. They’ve tried to stress his relative unimportance working for Rod. One witness confirmed Robert’s campaign office desk was the corner of a conference table facing a sink.

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

The ex-governor sounds obsessed with money, once deeming $300,000 too small a salary. His frequent rants are heavily peppered with profanities — cursing everyone from reporters to the president.

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.