CHICAGO – Political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko parlayed his success at amassing enormous amounts of campaign money for Gov. Rod Blagojevich into the access and clout to launch a $7 million shakedown scheme in the heart of state government, a prosecutor told jurors Monday.
"This case is about the defendant Tony Rezko's corrupt use of power and influence to benefit himself and his friends," Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid J. Schar said in his closing argument following nine weeks of trial.
Schar said there was no mystery concerning how Rezko obtained control of two powerful state boards and used them to pressure companies and individuals hoping for state business to pay sizable kickbacks.
"The answer to that question is access and clout and it stems from Rezko's ability to raise a lot of money," Schar said. "He is one of the top fundraisers for Gov. Rod Blagojevich."
Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
Schar scornfully dismissed defense claims that Rezko had actually been a responsible businessman and even gave up a lucrative state contract to make certain he didn't appear to be engaging in political improprieties.
"The defendant was concerned about the discovery of impropriety," Schar said. "As for impropriety itself, he had no problem with that."
Rezko, 52, is charged with scheming with millionaire attorney Stuart P. Levine to split a $1.5 million kickback from a contractor who wanted to build a hospital in the McHenry County suburb of Crystal Lake.
He also is charged with scheming with Levine to pressure kickbacks out of money management firms wanting to invest assets of the $40 billion fund that pays the pensions of retired downstate and suburban school teachers.
Rezko, a real estate developer and fast-food entrepreneur who bankrolled a number of Illinois political campaigns, denies he had anything to do with such a scheme.
But Schar said Rezko gained power over the Health Facilities Planning Board, which wields authority over hospital construction projects, by stacking it with obedient members whose vote he could reliably control.
The chairman himself was reappointed after delivering a $1,000 campaign contribution to Rezko and two others contributed $25,000 each before getting appointed, Schar noted.
Schar relied heavily on testimony from Levine — who has been denounced by the defense as a habitual drug user and admitted swindler and liar.
Levine testified that in April 2004 he met for a dinner for two with Rezko in a private dining room at Chicago's swanky Standard Club and outlined a wide-ranging scheme for collecting $7 million in payoffs.
Schar pointed to recordings of Levine phone conversations following the Standard Club meeting as indicative that Rezko approved the scheme.
"Tony's fine with all of it," Levine said in a phone conversation with his longtime friend and partner, Dr. Robert Weinstein. In the same call, Levine quoted Rezko as telling him: "It's like find us whatever you can. Just do it and make it happen, Stuart."
Schar argued that Levine needed Rezko's political power to make corrupt profits and Rezko needed Levine's position as a key board member.
"Criminals come together for joint lawbreaking," Schar said.
But chief defense counsel Joseph J. Duffy, whose closing argument is to follow Schar's, is guaranteed to rip into Levine not only for his drug taking but as a big talker whose words on the telephone proved nothing.
Prosecutors already had effectively conceded that Rezko was extremely careful not to say too much that could be quoted back to him at a corruption trial and that to understand how he functioned as a mastermind of the alleged scheme it is necessary to hear what others said about him.
Schar pointed to the words of the former Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board chairman, Thomas Beck, on the eve of the key vote on the Crystal Lake hospital. Prosecutors say Beck was a tool of Rezko's and he testified at the trial under a grant of immunity for what he might say.
Beck is heard on an FBI recording saying he had received his "marching orders" concerning the company that wanted the hospital.
"Our boy wants to help them," Beck is heard saying. It was understood that "our boy" was a reference to Rezko.
Schar also claimed Rezko was just one player, although an important one, in a network of corruption deeply rooted in Springfield and Chicago.
"He became part of a corrupt ring of individuals — a corrupt scheme that existed in the State of Illinois," Shar said. "He joined the corrupt scheme, he acted in furtherance of it and he did it for money."