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The accidental celebrity

Patti Blagojevich’s family and friends rally around her as her husband’s trial looms

by Kristy Kennedy

News trucks with their bright lights clogged the street in front of the Blagojevich home as helicopters flew overhead.

Meanwhile, Patti’s brother, Richard Mell, noted that the street outside his bungalow was quiet. No one knew or cared where he lived. The Blagojevich girls — Amy, 12, and Annie, 5 — were coming for dinner to escape the media circus caused by their father’s arrest. “I made pot roast,” Richard says. “It was a nice warm environment.”

Patti walked in with the girls and decided to stay. A little while later, Rod showed up, too. Not his usual “How-ya-doin’-Champ?” self. He looked exhausted, even dazed. No one brought up the arrest. “It was bizarre,” Richard says. “We talked about anything but.”

Someone must have mentioned the bright lights because the next day, Richard hung blinds in the Blagojevich girls’ rooms so they could sleep.

His sister and her family were in serious trouble. Not too long before, Rod had been taken from the house wearing jogging clothes and handcuffs to face numerous allegations. Although she was not charged, Patti was named 19 times in the FBI affidavit. The probe was part of an ongoing investigation called Operation Board Games, a public corruption investigation of pay-to-play schemes.

It didn’t look good, Richard thought.

Patti can be heard in wiretapped phone conversations talking over what job opportunities might be had for her and Rod if different people were appointed to President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat. In another taped call, Patti suggests that if the Tribune Co. wanted to sell the Cubs with help from the state, then the newspaper should fire editorial writers who had been critical of Rod. Although Richard says he rarely heard Patti swear, she’s caught on tape saying, “Hold up that f---ing Cubs s---. ... F--- them.”

Further, the feds allege Patti received payments through her River Realty Co. for purported real estate brokerage services from Antoin “Tony” Rezko, so he could curry favor with the governor.

Several legal experts and political observers have since told media outlets that Patti Blagojevich’s statements on the wiretaps might indicate that she was a co-conspirator in at least some of her husband’s alleged crooked dealings.

Even Patti’s brother Richard recognizes that perception but says that’s not the Patti he knows. “The tapes portray her as an active participant,” he says. “She is not like that at all.”

With Rod Blagojevich’s trial looming, friends and supporters have become scarce for Patti and Rod. The couple was unavailable to be interviewed for this article — Patti because of an exclusive agreement with another publication, while Rod did not respond to interview requests. More than 50 people were contacted for interviews, from childhood friends to those who knew Patti in her role as first lady to those who worked for the governor’s office. Few responded, and many declined to be interviewed. “The trial and the events are toxic,” says Richard Simpson, head of the political science department for the University of Illinois Chicago. “If one were known as a public official to be friends with Rod, that would not help their career.”

However, Patti’s closest group of family and friends were eager to talk about her. They say she has been unfairly branded by the media as a Lady Macbeth. “Unless there’s a big part of my sister I don’t know about, but I don’t think so,” Richard says. “I talk to her almost every day, and I don’t see a big mastermind.”

Patti’s family — brother, Richard; sister, state Rep. Deborah Mell; and father, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell — is tight. They describe Patti as a loving mother, daughter, wife and sister. Loyal. And they are just as loyal to her, with plans to do whatever Patti needs from attending the trial to helping with the girls. For now, the three siblings keep up with the habit of checking in with each other daily by phone. Richard might have a parenting question. Deb might be going to Costco. Or the three might discuss more serious things, such as whether Patti should go on a reality show.

In their early childhood, the trio shared an apartment bedroom, with bunk beds for the girls (then 5 and 2) and a crib for baby Richard. “Patti was a mother hen,” Dick Mell says. His first-born daughter walked her siblings to and from the neighborhood Catholic school, stuck up for them and once saved Richard from drowning.

After moving to a house, Patti and Deb shared a pink and white room well into their teen years. Deb can picture her sister bent over a book. Patti would stay up to read so that Deb could fall asleep with the light on. Later, Patti encouraged Deb to run for the state legislature. “My dad really didn’t want me to do it. Patti gave me the confidence for it,” Deb says. Her first vote would be the lone one against Rod’s impeachment.

Besides being a caretaker, Patti also was a get-things-done girl. On Christmas morning, toys needing assembly would surround her. More than once when her father puzzled over leftover pieces, Patti methodically went through the directions to figure out where they went.

The family took many driving vacations because of Dick and Margaret Mell’s vow to visit all 50 states by the time they were 50. Patti developed a sense of adventure from those trips, returning to the Tetons as an adult to climb the middle mountain with Rod and Dick. Patti investigated climbing Mount Kilimanjaro but abandoned the idea because of the health risks for her dad. “She had a lot of confidence in herself,” Dick says.

Although Patti occasionally helped with campaign mailings as a girl, she did not show much interest in politics. Her father thought she might become a doctor. Patti was near the top of her class at the all-girls St. Scholastica Academy high school. She joined the French club and a kazoo band. Her best friend was valedictorian, but she also hung out with the theater crowd. Deb describes Patti as reserved. She didn’t like her teeth and trained herself not to smile in public. She was choosy about her friends but developed strong bonds with those she made.

Home life was a little unconventional. When Dick Mell was elected alderman in 1975, Patti’s mother took over the family business, R.F. Mell Spring and Manufacturing Co., which made springs for automobiles. Under Margaret’s supervision, the company flourished. “I always called Margie a closet feminist. I think the kids knew she believed in the empowerment of women,” Dick Mell says. “She proved it in how she ran the company.”

Dick became the family cook. Although the family sat down to eat at 5 p.m. every day, Margaret lingered over her meal while Dick rushed to watch the evening news. One night, a reporter was critical of Dick, and Patti, who rarely cried, burst into tears. “I remember that really bothered me that she cried. Patti puts on a stiff upper lip, but she’s very sensitive,” Dick says.

In 1983, Patti left home for the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to major in economics on a legislative scholarship. Her freshman roommate and other friends she made that year remained close, standing up in each other’s weddings. Patti spent a semester in Italy and came back with a love for skiing and an Italian boyfriend. The relationship fizzled after Patti returned home to work for the family business.

The following spring, in 1988, Patti attended a political fundraiser with her father and met Rod Blagojevich. Patti joked that Rod was the rebound guy. He won her over with a serenade of Elvis songs. Rod became a part of the Mell family, teaching Richard to drive a stick shift and, within six months of meeting Patti, landing on the Chicago city payroll. Patti and Rod married in 1990.

In 1992, at his father-in-law’s suggestion, Rod ran for and won his first political office as state representative. Dick Mell would continue to use his influence to help Rod as he sought higher posts. Rod’s political star was rising, and by 1996, he won the 5th Congressional District seat and in 2002 was elected Illinois’ governor.

During campaigns, Patti knocked on precinct doors and spoke at events, typical for a candidate’s wife. When Rod ran for Congress in 1996, he found a supporter in Simpson, who was an alderman with Mell in the 1970s, besides being a political scientist and reformer. Over a lunch with the couple, Simpson agreed to raise funds for the campaign. Even though Patti grew up watching machine politics, she struck Simpson as an independent thinker. “If you met her, you’d think she was a ‘lakefront liberal,’” he says. “She thinks more on issues than candidates.”

The couple’s girls were born while Rod was in office, Amy in 1996 and Annie in 2003. After Amy was born, Patti opened up River Realty to have more flexible hours. “I thought she might become a professional person who had kids,” says Vicki Ellis, a college friend who had children about the same time. “I was surprised at how traditional of a mom she is. There has never been a nanny on the scene. It’s important for her to spend time with her kids while they are growing up.”

Saying they wanted to keep the girls grounded, Rod and Patti decided not to move to Springfield during Rod’s tenure as governor. “We’re not Rockefellers, so when Rod’s term or terms as governor is over, we have no means to live like this. It would just be an unnatural thing for us to get used to,” Patti told the State Journal-Register in Springfield.

Being a good mother was important to Patti. In fact, of the half-dozen in-depth interviews she gave as first lady, two were with Chicago Parent magazine. Those reports and others reveal Patti as a woman who wasn’t shy about breastfeeding in front of a reporter, who handled the family taxes and who didn’t mind cooking but hated cleaning up. In most of the interviews, Patti talked about the girls being her priority. Work would not interfere with her ability to take care of Amy and Annie. Patti flirted with day trading but decided it was too much like gambling. Her main job was selling real estate. Annie often was on her hip when she showed property or gave speeches as first lady.

Not long after opening River Realty, Patti began business dealings with developer and fundraiser Tony Rezko, a relationship that would be uncovered by the Chicago Tribune in the spring of 2005. That year, the governor’s office acknowledged the two had worked together for at least eight years, dating back to 1997. Reporters began digging, looking into property records and comparing notes with happenings in the governor’s office. In November 2006, the Chicago Sun-Times was the first to uncover that Patti was making money from Rezko at about the same time he sought favors from the governor. Reporters found that Patti had received nearly $50,000 in a real estate deal involving Rezko in late 2002, while Rod began “giving friends of Rezko seats on influential state boards and began hiring former Rezko employees to upper-level state jobs” about two months later. The newspaper also reported the feds were examining relationships between the Rezko and Blagojevich families.

A spokeswoman for the governor defended Patti, saying she had every right to pursue professional success and that Patti “carefully follows the same rules and standards that guide all real estate brokers.”

Meanwhile, Patti was making her mark as first lady. She took up causes such as highway beautification, a pediatric vision initiative and a reading program for children. She served on a commission charged with evaluating the state’s child welfare system and a task force aimed at protecting children from violent video games. Annie, who has several food allergies, inspired a food allergy program for Illinois schools.

Despite those good works, Patti got a reputation for being cold. Even Richard’s friends would ask why his sister looked unhappy on television. “Patti has this terrible habit,” Deb says, explaining Patti’s practice from childhood of not smiling in public. “I’m always telling her to smile.”

Because she didn’t live in Springfield, Patti didn’t hold receptions or attend many events. During Rod’s first term as governor, people often would walk right past Patti without anyone recognizing her. “I don’t think she had much of a public face, a persona that anyone had much of a handle on,” says Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield. “It made the negative stuff more stark. There was nothing to mitigate it.”

Besides the troubling media reports about River Realty, family ties between Rod and Dick Mell grew tense during Rod’s first term. Bad feelings became public in 2005, and Dick became estranged from the couple. Rod blamed Dick for starting a series of events that ultimately led to the federal investigation and Rod’s arrest. It was very painful for the close family, especially because Patti’s mother was very ill with a rare brain disorder. Margaret Mell died in 2006.

About a month later at Rod’s second inauguration, Richard remembers Patti sought him out and put her head on his shoulder. “We felt really close,” Richard says. “My sister doesn’t do that normally. She’s not a real affectionate person. Patti is a soft, warm, caring person inside this hard shell. People don’t get to see it.”

Pressure on the Blagojevich family continued to build. Reporters and federal investigators were still looking into Patti’s and the governor’s dealings. Rod’s absence from Springfield was causing enormous strain on his relationship with legislators, and the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board recommended the public be allowed to decide whether Rod should be recalled from office.

Patti's River Realty resurfaced in a 2008 Tribune story, showing the firm made more than $700,000 in commissions and other deals dating back to 2000, when Rod started raising money for his gubernatorial campaign. More than three-fourths came from clients with political connections, according to the story.

Also in 2008, Rezko was convicted on 16 felony counts as part of the federal Operation Board Games investigation. None of the charges had to do with River Realty, and none has been filed against Rezko or Patti for their real estate work. However, the current indictment against Rod indicates that federal investigators have looked into whether Patti’s company was a way for Rezko and potentially other political insiders to funnel illicit funds to the Blagojevich family.

The indictment describes two real estate commissions totaling about $54,000 from Rezko to Patti in 2003 and 2004, saying she provided little or no work. From October 2003-May 2004, Rezko also paid Patti $12,000 a month for purported brokerage services, according to the indictment.

Patti was living in a “pressure cooker,” her family says. “All the scrutiny that was going on in their lives,” Dick Mell says. “I wasn’t talking with them at the time.” [He has since reconciled with his daughter but won’t discuss his relationship with Rod.] “I knew it was drawing on her, and she was still suffering from the loss of her mother.”

Patti decided it was time to leave real estate.

What reportedly happened next is alleged in a section of the federal indictment titled, “The Search for Employment for Rod Blagojevich’s Wife.” First, in early 2008, Rod hoped Patti could find work on a paid state commission such as the Pollution Control Board. After discovering she was unqualified for that job, and after Patti passed a licensing exam allowing her to sell financial securities, Rod asked for networking meetings between his wife and financial institutions doing business with the state. Two such meetings were set up, but when they weren’t fruitful, Rod said he didn’t want the institutions to receive any further state business.

Meanwhile, Patti had a short stint as an investment banker for North Star Investment Management after reportedly touting her ability to land state business, according to the Chicago Tribune. Then in October 2008, Patti went to work for the Chicago Christian Industrial League, a charity serving the homeless. She requested hours allowing her to be home for homework and bedtime.

“I felt she was the perfect fit,” says Judy McIntyre, who was the charity’s director. “You don’t want to hire someone who is above the mission. She was no prima donna. She rolled up her sleeves and went to work. It was much more than a job to her; it was a calling.”

Patti sometimes had lunch with homeless people served by the league and later lobbied Rod to pardon a janitor whom she befriended there. The pardon was one of Rod’s last acts as governor. “She has a basic propensity for helping people,” McIntyre says.

Rod was arrested in early December 2008 and impeached by late January 2009. The feds released tapes of phone calls with Patti cursing the Tribune and participating in discussions on how to leverage Obama’s Senate seat. Rod talks about his family’s financial struggles and his hopes for Patti to land a job earning in the ballpark of $150,000. According to income tax statements released during the years Rod was in office, the couple’s adjusted gross income ranged from about $220,000 in 2007 to about $375,000 in 2004. The governor’s salary ranged from about $150,000 and $180,000 during his tenure.

After the arrest and impeachment, Patti was fired from the homeless charity. Her family and close friends rallied, offering support. The family got a dog, Skittles, as a distraction for the girls. Rod hired a publicist, hit the national media circuit, began hosting a radio show and wrote a book. The couple often cites the need to pay the mortgage and the girls’ private school tuition to keep some stability for them. But they also are faced with enormous legal bills and the possibility of paying damages if Rod is convicted. The indictment lists their home as an asset.

When the court blocked Rod from going to Costa Rica for I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Patti went on the television reality show instead, saying the family had to make a living. Her inner circle told her she was crazy. “I thought they would portray her as a villain,” Richard says.

On Patti’s first day in the jungle last summer, she ate a tarantula. Deb was not surprised. Family and friends were happy to see Patti come off as a plucky, down-to-earth person. For Patti, the show proved a respite. Professional wrestler Torrie Wilson, who has stayed in touch, says she found Patti to be genuine. “I really admired that she had such a great attitude despite all the stuff going on at home,” Wilson says. Patti also showed a catty side when she described a “kooky old aunt” her husband once ran against. Judy Baar Topinka was offended.

Mostly, Patti won over the public. “Patti is an asset to her husband. A lot of people had a very high opinion of her, fighting for her husband and her family,” says Paul Green, director of the Institute of Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “That’s the stuff that Masterpiece Theater is made of.”

In one scene, Patti described the impending court case like a weight. She was concerned the show could aggravate the U.S. attorney and prompt further charges. “You know in about a year, it’s coming with the, ‘We’re going to indict your wife unless you plead guilty.’ They’ll say it,” she said.

Her fear is not unfounded, says Matthew Belcher, a Chicago trial attorney. Legal experts say it is unusual for someone to be named so many times in an indictment and not charged. Theories for why she hasn’t been charged range from a potential plan for prosecutors to pressure Rod to plead guilty to the idea that a jury could be sympathetic to two parents facing prosecution to the possibility that investigators are still gathering evidence in an effort to prove Patti committed a crime.

If Rezko cooperates with federal investigators and testifies, “the role of Patti in the Blagojevich enterprise will be center stage,” Belcher says.

For now, Patti copes by keeping a routine for the girls. They live in a media-free house, and Patti is searching for a job. “I’m blown away by her strength,” friend Vicki Ellis says. “I’d love for her to tell the secret for how she keeps it together. She’s good at prioritizing what is important and somehow blocking everything else out.”

Patti drinks herbal tea and exercises to combat stress and recently climbed a skyscraper in the “Hustle Up the Hancock” event. She also makes sure to keep a thick book handy for escape.

In contrast to her husband, Patti is unlikely to be remembered as a key figure in Illinois politics, political scientist Simpson says. “Illinois is known around the world for [Rod] Blagojevich. It’s a little equivalent of people knowing Chicago for Al Capone.”

What does the future hold? Will Patti be forever known as the foul-mouthed first lady who ate a tarantula?

No way, Dick Mell says. “That one snippet of three or four seconds is not a lifetime of achievements. She is the epitome of what any parent would want in a child. She is a wonderful person.”

Her sister, Deb, says, “I think there is a lot of living for Patti still to do.”

And her brother, Richard, is serious when he says, “We joke that they can always move in with us.”

Kristy Kennedy is a Naperville-based free-lance writer.

Illinois Issues, April 2010

 

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Patti Blagojevich
Patti Blagojevich