REZKO CORRUPTION TRIAL
Illinois Governor Is In Courtroom in Spirit
Sunday, April 13, 2008
CHICAGO -- On tapes secretly recorded by the FBI, he is called "the big guy." In testimony to a federal jury, he is simply "the governor." Whatever he is called, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is a persistent presence in the corruption trial of Antoin Rezko, who is accused of using his influence with Blagojevich to pocket the illegal spoils of government.
Rezko is best-known nationally as a former fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), but Blagojevich is the most significant player not in the courtroom. The essence of the criminal prosecution is the alleged ability of Blagojevich's close friends and advisers to enrich themselves by manipulating decision-making in a famously unsavory state capital.
"You stick with us, and you'll do very well for yourself," Blagojevich reputedly told Stuart Levine, the primary witness for the prosecution, soon after Blagojevich took office in 2003. The conversation took place aboard a plane chartered by Levine, a wealthy patron and soon-to-be felon, to take Blagojevich on a fundraising trip to New York.
The two-term governor has not been charged with a crime. He has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and recently declared, "I'm not in the case." But the once-cocksure former congressman finds himself entangled in the testimony and the accompanying headlines and broadcast news capsules, like it or not.
Entering its second month, the Rezko trial is an Illinois politics junkie's dream, full of inside looks at patronage in a state infamous for the conveniently placed ally and the greased palm. The voices of witnesses, some in the courtroom, others clandestinely taped by the FBI, tell of well-worn paths to influence and prosperity in Springfield, the state capital.
The spoils of political influence were so expected, according to one witness, that Chicago Alderman Richard F. Mell -- Blagojevich's father-in-law and political mentor -- was frustrated that he was not profiting from the new governor's tenure. Levine, meanwhile, testified that he joined a bribery scheme with former alderman Edward Vrdolyak, a former Cook County Democratic Party chair who is awaiting trial.
The trial's most memorable insider is Levine.
"I have never been in a better position than I am right now," Levine boasted in one taped conversation, referring to Rezko. "Part of the reason is because there's never been such tight control of the central apparatus. This guy is making decisions . . . and can get anything done that he wants done."
A wealthy political profiteer long before Blagojevich won his first term in 2002, Levine began as a lawyer but soon started bribing his way to government contracts for his clients and associates. Among the contracts were a deal to supply tires to Chicago's streets and sanitation department, and one to supply buses to Chicago's public schools.
Levine, a Republican who enjoyed all-day drug binges with friends, said he used political contributions to work himself into the circles of power, winning appointment to three state regulatory boards. One panel made decisions about the state's $30 billion teacher pension fund. The other regulated multimillion dollar hospital expansions.
When Blagojevich arrived, Levine teamed with Rezko to keep his positions. The Syrian-born Rezko, who made a small fortune in pizza and Chinese food, was an ambitious Chicago businessman and a cultivator of political talent who happened to become a trusted adviser to Blagojevich.
Between 2001 and 2004, an FBI agent told the federal court jury, Rezko raised $1.4 million for Blagojevich, a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan who spent three terms in the House seat once held by Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D), later jailed for mail fraud in the House post office scandal.
Levine, who finished his sixth day under cross-examination on Thursday, testified that he conspired with Rezko to rig state business and extort kickbacks. Jurors heard Rezko say in a secretly recorded conversation that the hospital board's decisions were dictated by its chairman. Prosecutors say the chairman, in turn, followed Rezko's commands.
"I have good reasons for doing things the way I'm doing," Rezko said on the tape. He is now charged with 24 felonies, including fraud, money laundering and attempted extortion. Obama has no connection to the case.
Pressed this week by defense attorney Joseph Duffy to explain what Levine meant when he said there was "control of the central apparatus," Levine said Rezko and indicted Blagojevich friend Christopher Kelly had such close ties to the Blagojevich administration "that they could, in fact, get things done in a way I had never seen before."
Duffy asked Levine, who has admitted being a liar, a thief and a con man, whether he was "embellishing for the jury."
"No, sir," Levine answered in a strong voice.
Day after day, Duffy has tried to shake Levine, who admits spending $20,000 a year on drugs including cocaine and crystal methamphetamine, sometimes spiked with ketamine, an animal tranquilizer. His drug use began in 1972 and continued to 2004, when federal authorities said they had him cold on corruption charges.