Rezko convicted in corruption case

June 05, 2008|By Bob Secter and Jeff Coen | Bob Secter and Jeff Coen,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - A federal jury yesterday convicted developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko of corruption charges for trading on his influence as a top adviser and fundraiser to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Rezko's guilty verdict on 16 of 24 corruption counts could have broad repercussions for Blagojevich, who made Rezko a central player in his Cabinet. It could also prove a political liability for Sen. Barack Obama, who once counted Rezko as a friend and fundraiser, as the likely Democratic presidential nominee heads into the general election campaign.

The 10-woman, two-man jury deliberated for parts of 13 days before convicting Rezko of scheming with Stuart Levine, a longtime Republican insider, to extort millions of dollars from firms seeking state business or regulatory approval.

The jury convicted Rezko of wire and mail fraud, money laundering, and aiding and abetting bribery. He was acquitted of attempted extortion.

Levine, who pleaded guilty in 2006, became the government's star witness. He testified that in return for kickbacks, Rezko rigged decisions of two state boards on which Levine sat.

But the defense attacked Levine as a drug-addled con man who dodged a life sentence by inventing tales of illegal activity involving Rezko. His lawyers also questioned Levine's memory after decades of abusing cocaine and crystal methamphetamine.

In their closing arguments, prosecutors urged jurors not to disregard Levine's testimony just because they found him offensive. Government wiretaps and other witnesses backed up Levine's account of conspiring with Rezko, prosecutors contended.

Testimony at the trial produced a series of stunning allegations of misconduct that went well beyond the scope of the criminal charges against Rezko.

Former state official Ali Ata told jurors he bought his post with bribes to Rezko and campaign contributions to Blagojevich. Ata was also one of several witnesses who said Rezko talked of a plot to kill the criminal probe against him by pulling strings with the Bush White House to get U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald fired.

The trial also provided ample fodder for cynics who see Illinois politicians as members of a cozy club motivated more by greed than altruism or ideology.

Witnesses against Rezko claimed his alleged schemes involved a host of political insiders from both major parties. Among those whose names came up repeatedly during the trial were Chris Kelly, another top fundraiser for Blagojevich; William Cellini, a veteran Republican power broker; and Robert Kjellander, a GOP national committeeman from Illinois.

Rezko befriended many Illinois politicians and was a major fundraiser for some, most prominently Blagojevich and Obama. The criminal charges against Rezko had nothing to do with his connection to Obama. But that link proved a nagging headache for Obama during his Democratic presidential run, especially in the wake of Chicago Tribune revelations that tied Rezko to a 2005 real estate deal involving Obama's South Side home.

Bob Secter and Jeff Coen write for the Chicago Tribune.

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