By Joe Stephens and Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 11, 2008
A footnote to the 76-page criminal complaint and affidavit charging Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) with soliciting bribes confirms what has long been rumored -- that a former longtime friend and fundraiser for President-elect Barack Obama is talking to federal prosecutors in hopes of a reduced sentence.
Antoin "Tony" Rezko's offer to provide authorities with evidence of others' wrongdoing is "not complete," and prosecutors are working to corroborate the claims he has made so far, the footnote said.
Rezko, a 53-year-old developer, was convicted in June of 16 criminal counts, including fraud, money laundering and abetting bribery. He is in custody awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors depicted Rezko at trial as a fixer for Blagojevich and the man to see to secure a high-level appointment with the governor's administration. Rezko had been a longtime fundraiser for Blagojevich and other Illinois politicians, including Obama.
Obama was not implicated in the months-long trial, and he has said that Rezko sought no favors from him. At a news conference on Tuesday, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, went out of his way to dampen speculation about Obama.
"I should make clear, the complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever," Fitzgerald said. "We make no allegations that he's aware of anything, and that's as simply as I can put it. . . .
"There's no reference in the complaint to any conversations involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it. And that's all I can say."
Legal experts said it was unusual for a prosecutor to make such a blanket statement while an investigation was continuing.
"That carries a great deal of weight," said Jan Witold Baran, a Washington lawyer who represents politicians on ethical complaints and campaign finance matters. "It is really unusual for a U.S. attorney to say someone is not implicated.
"Could evidence pop up in the future to the contrary? Sure, it's possible. Is it likely? I think that, based on what he said yesterday, the answer is no," Baran added.
The ongoing investigation is sure to present political complications for the Obama Justice Department, because advisers close to the president-elect are referenced in the criminal complaint and will be interviewed by federal prosecutors, legal analysts said. A lawyer for the Obama transition team did not return calls or e-mails yesterday.
Fitzgerald was appointed U.S. attorney by President Bush, but he is a political independent. Obama could retain Fitzgerald, lending an element of continuity to the Blagojevich case and insulating himself somewhat from accusations that he is seeking to remove a dogged prosecutor from a case targeting Illinois Democrats.
Rezko's reappearance in the headlines in recent years has been of continuing use to Obama's political opponents -- including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), both of whose presidential campaigns pointed out that Obama shared a long history with the Chicago developer.
Over Obama's political career, Rezko raised contributions for him and introduced him to powerful aldermen. Rezko even offered 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 his studies at Harvard Law School when Rezko and his business associates first contacted him about a job possibility in development. Obama declined a job offer from Rezko, instead accepting a position at a small Chicago law firm that would later represent Rezko's company and whose senior partner would in time go into business with Rezko.
A few years later, Obama entered politics. Records list three checks arriving on his first day of fundraising for the Illinois Senate. Two of them, totaling $2,000, came from companies associated with Rezko. Over time, the businessman and Obama began meeting regularly for lunch and dinner, occasionally with their wives.
After he joined the U.S. Senate in 2005, Obama took Rezko on a tour of a six-bedroom house in an upscale Chicago neighborhood. Rezko recommended that Obama buy the home and, on the day Obama closed the deal, Rezko's wife closed on an adjoining lot. The Rezkos resold a portion of their lot to Obama to expand his yard.
Lawyers in the Blagojevich case said information provided by Rezko and others who testified at Rezko's trial could form the backbone of several additional charges against the governor. Blagojevich's wife, Patricia, had worked on real estate deals with Rezko.
Nearly half of the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday deals with allegations that members of the Blagojevich administration offered access to jobs and state contracts in exchange for campaign cash. Neither Blagojevich nor his chief of staff, John Harris, was immediately charged with involvement in those alleged schemes. Several of the fundraisers testified at Rezko's criminal trial this year.
Fitzgerald said authorities did not "rely upon" information from Rezko in the complaint. Joseph Duffy, a defense attorney for Rezko, did not return calls yesterday.