By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008
CHICAGO, June 5 -- Antoin Rezko, a Chicago businessman and longtime fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), was convicted of 16 felony corruption charges Wednesday in a case that alleged influence peddling in the upper reaches of the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
After two months of vivid testimony about political profiteering in Illinois state government, the 12-member jury found Rezko guilty of using his clout as a Blagojevich insider to shake down companies hoping to do business with the state. The 16 counts included fraud, money laundering and abetting bribery. Rezko was acquitted of eight counts, including extortion.
Rezko surrendered to federal authorities as soon as the verdicts were read. He explained through his attorney that he wants to begin serving his sentence immediately.
The successful prosecution adds to the pressure on Blagojevich, who rode into office in 2002 with a promise to end corruption in Springfield, the state capital. His Republican predecessor, George Ryan, was convicted of corruption in the same Chicago courthouse in 2006.
"It's another chapter in the sad history of Illinois government," Jay E. Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, told reporters. "I don't think this is the 'No more business as usual' we were promised when Rod Blagojevich became governor back in 2002. He can't blame this on George Ryan."
Blagojevich, now in his second term, has steadfastly denied wrongdoing. For Obama, who was unconnected to the criminal case but once counted Rezko as a friend and loyal contributor, the verdict makes it certain that critics will continue to question their relationship. Indeed, within 20 minutes of the jury's announcement, the Republican National Committee sent reporters an e-mail under the heading "Rezko: Obama's Longtime Friend and Money Man."
GOP Chairman Robert M. Duncan soon followed with a contention that the verdict creates doubts about Obama's judgment, and Duncan's staff posted a video designed to highlight Obama's connections to Rezko and to raise doubts about the explanations of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.
Obama has said whenever asked -- and he has been asked repeatedly -- that his relationship to Rezko, who had a history of befriending up-and-coming Illinois politicians, never strayed into official business. Obama said Rezko asked no favors and that he did him none.
Rezko has not raised money for Obama since 2004, and the Obama campaign gave to charity the donations linked to Rezko.
"I'm saddened by today's verdict," Obama said in a statement Wednesday. "This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew, but now he has been convicted by a jury on multiple charges that once again shine a spotlight on the need for reform."
The prosecution of Rezko was an intricate web of testimony about money-minded contributors and advisers headlined by a Republican political fixer named Stuart Levine, an admitted con man who made and spent millions, including significant sums on day-long drug binges.
Levine told the jury that he bribed his way to government contracts for his clients and associates. He said he used his connections to win appointments to state regulatory boards, including the panels that made decisions about the state's $30 billion teacher pension fund and another that oversaw lucrative hospital expansions.
Rezko, Levine testified, helped him preserve his clout and his schemes to keep the illicit money flowing after Blagojevich entered office. An FBI agent testified that Rezko raised $1.4 million for the new governor's campaign.
"I have never been in a better position than I am right now," Levine boasted in a conversation secretly taped by the FBI. He said of Rezko, "This guy is making decisions . . . and can get anything done that he wants done."
Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.