Published July 19, 2010
CHICAGO – Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is expected to finally step into the witness box at his corruption trial on Tuesday, though exactly when will depend partly on how quickly prosecutors finish cross-examining his brother.
For most of the trial, co-defendant Robert Blagojevich faded into the background. But in a full day of testimony Monday, the sometimes emotional older brother told jurors he had no part in alleged plans to trade Barack Obama's former Senate seat for campaign funds or a Cabinet post for his sibling, and that he never put illegal pressure on potential political donors.
The former Army officer turned businessman, now a real estate entrepreneur from Nashville, tried to convey an image as a decent and straight-laced gentleman — a contrast to the sometimes goofy image of his brother, long the butt of jokes on late-night TV.
"I was military and business, he was law and politics," Robert told jurors in a clear, firm voice, sitting straight in the witness chair.
Prosecutors say they expect to question Robert Blagojevich for several hours Tuesday, after which his attorneys are expected to rest their case. Their only other witness was his wife, Julie, who testified briefly Monday morning.
Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich, who is a year younger than his brother, say they will start their case by calling an FBI agent and a former Blagojevich administration budget official to testify briefly. It would then be the turn of the impeached governor, who has proclaimed his desire to take the stand loudly and often.
It is rare and risky for defendants in federal trials to testify in their own defense. Experts say Rod Blagojevich would need to abandon his usual cockiness, humble himself, and not allow himself to be goaded.
Both Blagojevich brothers have pleaded not guilty to taking part in a scheme to sell or trade the Senate seat. Rod Blagojevich, 53, has also pleaded not guilty to plotting to launch a racketeering operation in the governor's office. Robert Blagojevich, 54, has pleaded not guilty to a wire fraud charge that he was involved in pressuring two businessmen illegally for campaign funds.
On Monday, Rod Blagojevich followed his brother's testimony attentively, sometimes nodding his head in agreement. But the two have rarely been seen talking and lawyers concede their relationship is strained because of their legal troubles.
On the witness stand, Robert Blagojevich depicted himself as a minor player in his brother's operations, working for just a few months as his campaign-fund manager in 2008.
He directly addressed potentially damaging wiretap recordings first played by prosecutors where he is heard telling his brother that, "The only brother advice I'd give ya ... I wouldn't give anything away for free."
While prosecutors pointed to the comment as proof that Robert Blagojevich played a role in alleged schemes to trade the U.S. Senate seat for money or a job, he gave a different explanation.
"I'm his brother and I'm just talking to him off the cuff about a big choice he had in front of him," he told jurors.
Other times, he sounded indignant as he denied that he ever wanted his brother to gain personally from his actions as governor. He says the thrust of his advice to Rod Blagojevich was always that he should secure something of "political value" to help move his policy agenda forward.
At one point, Robert Blagojevich went out of his way to address the profanities he and his brother threw around on the secret FBI recordings. Breaking courtroom protocol, he turned toward the jury without his attorney asking any direct question on the subject.
"If anyone was offended by the vulgarity, I apologize," he said, casting his eyes around the courtroom. "I didn't expect anyone would hear me."