The Brothers Blagojevich: On Trial Together But Apart

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Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich arrives at court for his trial July 20, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.

Moments after announcing he wouldn't testify in his own defense, former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich propped one foot up on a courtroom bench and began signing autographs. It lasted all of four spectators before the marshals stopped the fanfare in the courtroom on the 25th floor of the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois. Leaning back in his chair, Blagojevich's co-defendant, his older brother Robert, looked on sternly from behind the table where he and his own lawyers sat. While the ex-governor has been the center of the legal action, the story is really one of two brothers — and, in a way, the deterioration of their relationship. Indeed, Robert Blagojevich, in an aside to TIME, referred to his "pre- and post-indictment" life with his only sibling.

"It has been a cataclysmic change," Robert said during an exclusive interview with TIME. "We have found out who our real friends are and who aren't. But I'm a half glass full person. The worst part of this experience was waiting for the trial. It's a rollercoaster." But brotherly love was already strained by then. "We were close up until the point when he asked me to come up and help him on the [Friends of Blagojevich] campaign fund," says Robert, referring to the moment in August 2008 when, at Rod's request, he accepted the job of heading the governor's political money-raising program. When asked whether he'd take the position if it was offered today, Robert says, "Given what I know now? No."

Amid the trial, the brothers have barely acknowledged each other in the courtroom. While Rod jokes with the spectators, shaking hands and signing autographs, Robert can usually be found staring off into space, his lips pursed. Robert Blagojevich has been charged with five counts of wire fraud, extortion conspiracy, attempted extortion and bribery conspiracy; he faces 90 years and $1.25 million in fines if convicted. His brother, the ex-governor, faces racketeering, wire fraud, bribery and extortion charges which could amount to 415 years and $6 million in fines, if convicted. Among the charges: that Rod Blagojevich attempted to benefit from his right as governor to name a successor to Barack Obama's Senate seat. The brothers have separate legal teams.

Earlier this week, Robert spent two very tough days on the stand in what many thought would be a preview for the key moment — or performance — of the trial: the testimony of the disgraced governor. But, on Wednesday, Rod Blagojevich's legal team said their client would not be testifying and rested their case without calling a single witness. "The government hadn't proven its case," they said over and over again as reporters pressed them for an explanation.

Their client was more expansive. "I've said from the beginning I did nothing illegal," the ex-governor declared from the media pit on the first floor of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse. "The government played some of the tapes [of closed-door discussions with aides, wiretapped by the FBI]. In the tapes the government played, they didn't prove anything... I did nothing illegal. In fact, they proved I sought the advice of my lawyers and my advisers," he continued. "They proved I was on the phone talking with them, brainstorming about ideas. Yes, they proved some of the ideas were stupid. But they also proved some of the ideas were good."

Robert Blagojevich may wish he had never decided to run Friends of Blagojevich, but he still says it is "likely" he will eventually have a good relationship with his brother again. Some observers say, however, that he has already given a great gift to his sibling by taking the stand first. Robert responded both combatively and defensively to cross-examination by U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner, the two men sparring back and forth. On Robert's first day on the stand, Niewoehner grilled him about a conversation taped on Nov. 5, 2008, where Robert can be heard apparently urging his brother to "horse-trade" with then president-elect Obama to stop the federal investigation into the governor. "That's what you wanted to have happen?" Niewoehner asks. "As a brother, of course I did!" said Robert Blagojevich, growing indignant on the witness stand.

Experts speculate that Robert's taking so much heat on the witness stand may be one of the reasons the ex-governor opted out of testifying. Prosecutors and defense teams are always evaluating who can best tell the story, who will best stand up under cross examination, says Daniel Purdom, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago and a partner at Hinshaw & Culbertson who runs the national White Collar Criminal Practice Group for Chicago. The fact that Robert performed well under pressure may have convinced Rod's team that they did not have to risk their client on the stand.

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