Obama Says He Regrets Land Deal With Fundraiser

After Antoin
After Antoin "Tony" Rezko, right, leaves the Chicago federal building with his attorney in October after pleading not guilty to influence-peddling. (By Nam Y. Huh -- Associated Press)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 17, 2006

CHICAGO. Dec. 16 -- Antoin "Tony" Rezko is a political insider, an energetic Chicago dealmaker and campaign fundraiser often in the headlines for being on the wrong side of good government. Indicted in October on influence-peddling charges, he also has a habit of befriending prospective political stars.

One of them was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who was offered a job by Rezko in the early 1990s while a top student at Harvard Law School. Obama did not take it, but over the years, the two men stayed in touch, and Rezko backed Obama's successful 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, raising money and contributing his own.

In June 2005, in what Obama now describes as a "boneheaded" mistake, Obama and Rezko's wife bought adjacent properties on Chicago's South Side, closing the deals on the same day. Seven months later, wanting a bigger yard for his $1.65 million house, Obama bought a slice of the Rezko property for $104,500.

After news of the deal broke last month in the Chicago Tribune, Obama said he had erred by creating the appearance that Rezko had done him a favor by selling him a portion of the lot. For the first time since he entered the national spotlight, the 45-year-old freshman senator found himself on the defensive, discussing a personal decision he had come to regret.

"There's no doubt that this was a mistake on my part. 'Boneheaded' would be accurate," Obama said in a telephone interview Friday. "There's no doubt I should have seen some red flags in terms of me purchasing a piece of property from him."

Obama recently donated to charity $11,500 that Rezko had contributed to his federal campaign account.

There have been no allegations that Obama, whose political fortunes are soaring as he mulls a run for president, broke the law or committed any ethics violations. He said he has done no government business with Rezko, who is facing charges in two unrelated criminal cases.

But leaders of Chicago watchdog organizations describe Obama's behavior as a surprising error in judgment, particularly for a politician noted for his tactical skills, his ambition and his support of state and federal ethics legislation.

"It's disappointing because there has been speculation about Tony Rezko, and whether he was crossing ethical lines, for a number of years," said Cynthia Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Jay Stewart, executive director of Chicago's Better Government Association, said, "Being a lawyer, he did everything by the book, but there's a higher expectation of him."

To Chicago political observers, it made sense that Rezko tried to get close to Obama. A Syrian-born businessman whose fortunes seemed to rise and fall with his latest deal, Rezko was known for cultivating politicians, including Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.).

Rezko created a real estate development company and operated dozens of Chinese eateries and pizza restaurants. After Blagojevich rode into office in 2002, Rezko emerged as a friend and close adviser. He recommended people for significant state jobs and, a federal grand jury charged, soon tried to shake down investment firms that wanted to do business with Illinois.

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