By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 2008
In recent weeks, Republicans launched a series of commercials designed to highlight what they consider a serious ethical lapse by Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama: his relationship with Chicago developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a longtime donor, former fundraiser and, now, convicted felon.
Bankrolled by rival John McCain's campaign and the Republican National Committee, the ads allege that Rezko tutored Obama in the ways of shady politics and that Obama rewarded Rezko with millions in tax money.
Yet the emphasis on Obama's friendship with Rezko has had little impact on voters, polling data show, even after Rezko returned to the headlines this month. On Oct. 8, prosecutors asked a federal judge to delay his sentencing on 16 counts of fraud, money laundering and abetting bribery while "the parties engage in discussions." Analysts said that probably means that Rezko is cooperating with the widespread investigation of influence-peddling in Illinois.
The most direct indication that Rezko has not seriously damaged Obama's image was in a New York Times-CBS News poll last week that showed that among the 44 percent who said they were bothered by "anything" to do with Obama's background or past associations, one respondent mentioned Rezko.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that Obama held a 10-point advantage over McCain on the question of which candidate has higher personal and ethical standards. A poll earlier in the week had the senator from Illinois eight points up as the more honest and trustworthy candidate.
Obama has weathered repeated efforts to make Rezko an issue. During the Democratic primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) called Rezko a "slum landlord." Obama's foes have described his connections to Rezko as at odds with the candidate's reformer image.
"This relationship undercuts the entire message of Obama's career and campaign," said Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
But Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Obama has "led the fight for ethics reform and worked to reduce the influence of money over the political process."
No evidence surfaced in Rezko's long federal trial to suggest any wrongdoing by Obama, but the two have a long history. Over the course of Obama's political career, Rezko raised contributions for him, introduced him to powerful aldermen and listened when Obama recommended a friend for a job. Rezko even offered expert real estate advice when Obama bought an expensive house on Chicago's South Side.
The two met in the early 1990s. Obama has said he was finishing Harvard Law School when Rezko and his business associates first contacted him about a job possibility in development.
David Brint, then-executive vice president at Rezmar, Rezko's development company, said he called Obama after he was named the first black president of the Harvard Law Review and later introduced him to Rezko.
When Obama entered politics a few years later, records listed three contributions on his first day of fundraising for his Illinois Senate bid. Two, totaling $2,000, came from Rezko's food company and an unincorporated business at the same address. Obama has estimated that Rezko personally raised 10 to 15 percent of his funds.
"At that stage in his life, Barack was looking for people who were willing to help him. And Tony was willing to help him." said Anthony Licata, a Chicago lawyer and longtime Rezko acquaintance.
Over the next decade, Rezko contributed or helped raise as much as $250,000 for Obama. (Obama's campaigns now have donated to charity $159,000 in contributions linked to Rezko. Rezko has not donated to, or raised money for, Obama's presidential campaign, officials said.)
Obama said he had performed no favors for Rezko. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times discovered a 1998 letter from Obama urging local officials to fund a senior living project proposed by a firm controlled by Rezko and a partner. The campaign and Rezko's attorney later said that Rezko did not request the letter.
Over time, Rezko and Obama met socially. Obama told reporters that he and his wife, Michelle, once visited the Rezko home on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin and that the two couples dined together at a Chicago restaurant.
Rezko, a native of Syria, has an impressive life story, Brint said.
"He came over here, he didn't speak any English," he said. "He built strong relationships, people trusted him."
Rezko also raised money for Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) and screened candidates for posts in his administration. Obama said he had "formal discussions" with Rezko about a job for Eric Whitaker, a physician and friend. In 2003, Blagojevich named Whitaker director of the Illinois Department of Public Health.
Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and the next year decided to buy a house in Chicago priced at $1.95 million. He later said that Rezko toured the home and advised him to buy it. Around the same time, Rezko's name was surfacing in connection with reports about questionable dealings in local government.
In June 2005, Obama and his wife closed on the house for $300,000 less than the asking price. That same day, in what Obama has said was an independent transaction, Rezko's wife, Rita, bought a lot that served as the house's side yard for the full asking price of $625,000.
In January 2006, Rita Rezko sold the Obamas one-sixth of the lot for $104,000, one-sixth of the original purchase price. Obama acknowledged later that he "should have seen some red flags" in making the purchase.
In October 2006, federal authorities culminated their three-year investigation of the Illinois government. Rezko's trial, which began in March, detailed how he used political influence to collect kickbacks from companies seeking state business.
In a statement, Obama said: "This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew." Rezko's next hearing is set for Dec. 16.
Polling editor Jon Cohen and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.