Prosecutors Let One Blagojevich Off the Hook

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Kiichiro Sato / AP

Robert Blagojevich, brother of the former Illinois governor, speaks to the media at the Federal Court building in Chicago on Aug. 17, 2010

Robert Blagojevich couldn't believe the text message on his phone Thursday morning. It was from his defense attorney Michael Ettinger: "They have dismissed the charges." His wife Julie began crying. "Wait until we know everything for sure," Robert Blagojevich told her.

Five minutes later, a phone call from Ettinger. "You're a free man," he said. The older brother (and co-defendant) of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich was facing four charges, down from an original five, that related to the attempted sale of the vacant Senate seat of Barack Obama and alleged extortion to raise money for the governor's campaign. A jury last week was hung on Rod Blagojevich's charges; the ex-governor was convicted on one of the 24 counts against him and likely faces a retrial.

"Oh, my God. You're kidding," Robert Blagojevich says he exclaimed as his wife began sobbing hysterically. "It was the best kind of tears I've ever seen, joyful tears. I was in total disbelief. A year and half of this nightmare and it is finally over." He bear-hugged her before they collapsed onto the sofa, cradled in each other's arms. He later told defense attorney Cheryl Schroeder, "I don't know what I'm going to do with the rest of my life." "It's a pretty good problem to have," Schroeder told him.

Just a day earlier, the government had made a last-minute offer to Robert Blagojevich, 55, that would have allowed him to be tried separately from the former governor, but he refused, opting to take his chances in court. "They asked if we would agree to a severance and agree to go second and we said absolutely no," Schroeder said via text message. "The next thing we heard, they were dropping charges."

Prosecutor Reid Schar said Thursday the government wouldn't retry Robert Blagojevich due to the "disparity in charges." "We had no idea this was going to happen," Schroeder said during a phone conversation. "It was the right thing to do. We thought Rob testified well. You know it when even some of the jurors were saying, 'Let him go. Send him home' ... We all hoped this would happen, but we never believed it would actually happen. To put him through this again would have been a travesty, but we know the federal government and [U.S. Attorney] Patrick Fitzgerald, we figured they would do a retrial anyway. We never expected them to do this."

During their trial, Robert Blagojevich always looked better in comparison to his brother. Unlike the former governor, Robert Blagojevich did take the witness stand, preparing for it by poring through the transcripts of the FBI wiretaps that were central to the prosecution case. "The government apparently thinks their case is stronger when Robert isn't sitting there; with one less team of attorneys, it may work to their advantage," says Daniel Purdom, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago.

Does Robert Blagojevich have any advice for his brother Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of lying to the FBI, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine, and who is also likely to face the rest of the hung charges in a new trial? "I'm in no position to give my brother advice," Robert Blagojevich says. "He wouldn't listen anyway. He's got his lawyers, he's smart and he's got money. He'll figure it out." The brothers had grown increasingly estranged during the trial.

Right now, Robert Blagojevich says he's going to think of himself, not his brother. "I'm feeling very selfish, I'm going to start focusing on living the rest of my life, traveling and celebrating," Robert Blagojevich says. "I've got to get back to my business and making money." Robert Blagojevich says the trial cost him close to $1 million, which he obtained by taking a second mortgage out on his home he purchased for $867,997 in 2002 in Nashville, Tenn., and liquidating his and his wife's IRAs.

Still, Robert Blagojevich may yet become a key witness for his brother. When asked if he'd be willing to testify or help his brother, Robert Blagojevich says, "If he asks for my help, I'd consider it." Rod Blagojevich's defense attorney Sam Adam Sr. said they may subpoena Robert Blagojevich since he will no longer be a co-defendant in the retrial of the former governor.

Meanwhile, Rod Blagojevich is seeking taxpayer assistance by way of the Criminal Justice Act's Federal Defender Program, which can provide court-appointed attorneys. He had used up his entire $2.6 million campaign fund during the trial. Robert Blagojevich, at his brother's request, had assumed the chair of the Friends of Blagojevich fundraising campaign that raised that amount.