Published November 22, 2011
CHICAGO -- A former top fundraiser for ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose trial exposed a culture of pay-to-play politics in Illinois, was sentenced Tuesday to serve seven more years in prison for corruption.
Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former Chicago real estate developer and fast-food entrepreneur, has been in custody for 3 1/2 years while awaiting sentencing. He was sentenced to a total of 10 1/2 but will get credit for that time he has served.
His attorneys had asked U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve to set him free, arguing that he already has served more time than others who were convicted as part of the federal investigation of Blagojevich have or are expected to.
St. Eve told Rezko his "selfish and corrupt actions" had damaged the trust people have in their government.
"You defrauded the people of Illinois, you engaged in extensive corruption throughout the state of Illinois," St. Eve said.
Prosecutors had asked that Rezko receive a prison term of between 11 and 15 years.
Rezko was convicted in 2008 of fraud, money laundering and plotting to squeeze $7 million in kickbacks from firms that wanted to do business with the state during Blagojevich's tenure. The governor was arrested six months later and convicted this year on charges that included trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. He is set to be sentenced next month and is expected to get about 10 years.
The 56-year-old Rezko also was a political fundraiser for Obama during his campaigns for Illinois senator, though not for his presidential campaign. Obama has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case, but his relationship with Rezko became an issue during the 2008 election.
Rezko's sentencing was delayed after he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors investigating Blagojevich and others. He also offered to testify at the corruption trials of Blagojevich and millionaire businessman William Cellini, who was convicted Nov. 1 of conspiring with Rezko and others to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby."
But the government said he ultimately did not yield any useful information, and prosecutors said they eventually concluded Rezko's persistent lies long after he was charged would have made him a vulnerable, ineffective witness.
The judge agreed with prosecutors.
"It was your own actions which decreased your value as a witness for the government," St. Eve told him in court on Tuesday.
In court papers, Rezko's lawyers offered a picture of the Syrian immigrant as an eager philanthropist who was "shocked" by Blagojevich's proposed brainstorming on ways to profit from his gubernatorial decisions.
Prosecutors, though, said Rezko often took the initiative and described him standing before the then-governor and other confidants at an office chalkboard, diagramming various scams.
During Rezko's nine-week trial, prosecutors said he raised over $1 million for Blagojevich and got so much clout in return he could control two powerful state boards. They accused him of plotting with admitted political fixer Stuart Levine to squeeze payoffs from money management firms that sought to invest the assets of the $40 billion state Teachers Retirement System and said he plotted with Levine to get a $1.5 million bribe from a contractor who sought state approval to build a hospital.
Levine pleaded guilty and became the government's star witness at the Rezko and Cellini trials. Rezko's lawyers complained that, in exchange for Levine's cooperation, prosecutors had recommended a prison term of just 5 1/2 years. But prosecutors say Levine's cooperation with the government started sooner, lasted longer and reaped more dramatic results.
Rezko has spent much of his time in jail in solitary, rarely getting fresh air and subject to a diet that has resulted in him losing 80 pounds, according to a recent defense filing.
"Just looking at you, physically, is evidence of the great fall that you have had," St. Eve said.