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CHICAGO (CBS) – Robert Blagojevich, who was caught up in the federal investigation that saw his brother Rod Blagojevich sent to prison for 14 years, said U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald’s decision to resign was a good day for justice, claiming Fitzgerald overreached and was unfairly allowed to gather unchecked power.
“I thought it was a good day for civil liberties,” Robert Blagojevich said of Fitzgerald’s announcement on Wednesday that his last day in office would be June 30.
Robert Blagojevich was prosecuted alongside his brother, Rod, at the former governor’s first trial in 2010. He was accused of trying to help his brother get illicit campaign cash in exchange for appointing someone to fill Barack Obama’s vacancy in the U.S. Senate after he was elected President, but prosecutors dropped the charges against him after the jury was deadlocked on virtually every count in the case.
Robert Blagojevich blasted Fitzgerald for targeting him in the first place, and pressuring him to testify against his brother, when Blagojevich said prosecutors should have known he was innocent.
“He very definitely overreached, and in my case I would say he went too far in prosecuting a sibling, to be used as a tool, and a pawn, to go after who their ultimate target was, my brother,” Blagojevich said. “So I think that’s a flawed system that allows that to happen with no consequence to him (Fitzgerald).”
He noted that the charges against him revolved almost entirely around a single phone call between him and his brother on Dec. 4, 2008, even though prosecutors had hundreds of hours of wiretaps of phone calls between the two.
During that call, when Rod Blagojevich asked his brother how to approach a fundraiser for Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. about possibly appointing Jackson to the U.S. Senate, Rod told Robert to ask for something “tangible, up front.”
Rod added, “you gotta be careful how you express that … and assume everybody’s listening, the whole world’s listening.”
Robert said “right,” but has long insisted, both in testimony at trial and off the stand, that he was distracted during that call, because he was trying to have coffee with his wife, and he was annoyed with his brother for interrupting, so he wasn’t paying close attention.
“If I really wanted to do something improper, they would have heard that on the phone,” Robert said Thursday. “They knew I was an honorable and well-meaning person, who was just fundraising for his brother, and they chose a random telephone conversation in a coffee shop with my wife … and they chose that one call to indict me. … So to me, there was an overreach, and a little bit of abuse, for sure.”
For his own part, while speaking to reporters Thursday about his decision to step down, Fitzgerald – without discussing the Blagojevich case specifically – defended his office’s practice of trying to get defendants in criminal cases to cooperate with prosecutors and testify about others involved in alleged criminal activity.
“Do we bring cases, and do we bring cases with the idea that we want people to talk to ferret out corruption? Absolutely, we do,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s part of the system, and we should not pretend it’s not part of the system.”
Fitzgerald said, regardless of the type of criminal case, it would be unfair to only prosecute those at the bottom of an organization, without trying to go after the leaders.
“If you look at the bottom of the pyramid, and you don’t try to go up the pyramid, that would be a great unfairness,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s inherent of the system that, when we prosecute people, they have a choice. They can stand up and go to trial and defend it, or do the time, or they can benefit. And that’s part of the system. That’s part of the system long before me, and it’s not just in Chicago.”
But Blagojevich said he believes Fitzgerald was allowed to have too much power, without anyone to rein him in if and when he was too aggressive in pursuing cases.
“You’ve got a public servant who’s been in office for many, many years,” Blagojevich said. “When you’re able to accrue power the way I believe he has been able to, he’s somewhat unchecked, and in my case I think he’s guilty of overreaching in prosecuting me and trying to get to my brother.”
Asked what advice he would give to U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, who will be responsible for conducting a search for someone to nominate for the next U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Blagojevich said the senators should look to the Justice Department’s stated mission.
“Their mission is about pursuing truth and justice, and so I would strongly recommend that they find someone who’s very ethical, and someone who’s about getting to the truth fairly, honorably, and not at all costs,” Blagojevich said.
Blagojevich was in town on Thursday to speak to the Chicago Bar Association, where he planned to speak about his arrest on Dec. 9, 2008, and his prosecution for his work to help his brother with campaign fundraising.
–CBS 2 Political Producer Ed Marshall and CBS 2 Web Producer Todd Feurer contributed to this report.