Published June 05, 2008
CHICAGO – A prominent fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich was convicted Wednesday of fraud and money laundering after a high-profile federal trial provided an unusually detailed glimpse of the pay-to-play politics that has made Illinois infamous.
Antoin "Tony" Rezko showed no emotion as the jury found him guilty of a majority of the 24 counts he faced, including scheming to get kickbacks out of money management firms wanting state business and a contractor who wanted to build a hospital in northern Illinois. He was acquitted of charges that included attempted extortion.
"What the jury did was vindicate the interests of the citizens of Illinois and honest government," said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
The nine-week trial included explosive testimony about all-night drug parties involving the government's star witness and allegations that the governor discussed a state job for a supporter after the donor handed over a $25,000 check for Blagojevich's campaign.
Testimony barely touched on the relationship between Obama and Rezko, who has known the Democratic presidential candidate since he entered politics and was involved in a 2005 real estate deal with him. Most of the focus was on shakedowns prosecutors said Rezko arranged when he was a top adviser to Blagojevich.
Neither Blagojevich nor Obama has been accused of wrongdoing. Blagojevich planned and evening news conference to address the verdict. Obama's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rezko's bond was immediately revoked Wednesday and he was taken into federal custody until his Sept. 3 sentencing.
"Mr. Rezko, on his own, decided that if he was convicted he wanted to immediately start serving his sentence," said defense attorney Joseph Duffy, who added that he would pursue an appeal.
Duffy and other defense attorneys had maintained that the government had little evidence tying him to corruption and that the star witness, admitted political fixer Stuart P. Levine, was not credible because years of drug use had damaged his memory.
Levine was a member of a state board that decided which hospitals got built and on a panel that decided which investment firms got allocations from a $40 billion fund that pays pensions of retired teachers.
Levine testified that Rezko, drawing on the political clout he developed as a Blagojevich fundraiser, stacked both boards with members who could be relied upon to follow orders when big-money decisions came up. Prosecutors said he used that clout to shake down companies and individuals hoping for state business for $7 million in kickbacks.
While Obama's name rarely surfaced, the case focused attention on Obama's relationship with Rezko, a man Hillary Clinton derided in one televised debate as a "slum landlord."
Rezko, a real estate developer and fast-food entrepreneur, had been friendly with Obama for years, even offering him a job after Obama finished law school. Obama turned down the offer, but a political friendship developed.
Rezko donated more than $21,000 to Obama and raised far more for his campaigns in Illinois, though not his presidential bid.
He also advised Obama on the purchase of a new Chicago home and, in his wife's name, purchased a vacant lot next to the new Obama home at the same time from a couple who insisted on selling both pieces of property simultaneously. The purchase raised questions about the extent of his help.
The charges against Rezko had nothing to do with Obama, who has donated $150,000 in Rezko-related contributions to charity.
Rezko, 52, was charged with scheming with Levine to split a $1.5 million kickback from a contractor who wanted to build a hospital in northern Illinois and to shake down money management firms wanting to invest in the teacher pension fund.
Rezko denied he had anything to do with such a scheme.
Rezko attorneys claimed that once FBI wiretaps picked up Levine talking about payoffs and other corruption he needed to provide federal prosecutors with a "big fish" like Rezko in order to get a deal and avoid a possible life sentence.
Levine did make a deal with prosecutors under which instead of life he will probably get a 5 1/2-year prison sentence and forfeit $5 million. He admitted on the stand that for 30 years he attended twice-a-month marathon drug parties, where he shared drugs including cocaine and crystal methamphetamine with male companions.
Rezko attorneys said Levine's brain had been so badly damaged that he couldn't recall what Rezko had said and done years ago.
The scandal is the second to swirl around an Illinois governor in 10 years. Former Gov. George Ryan, Blagojevich's predecessor, is currently serving a 6 1/2-year prison term for corruption.