Secret Tapes Helped Build Graft Cases In Illinois

Joseph Cari, a former DNC official, pleaded guilty to extortion.
Joseph Cari, a former DNC official, pleaded guilty to extortion. (Charles Rex Arbogast - AP)
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By Carrie Johnson and Kimberly Kindy
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 22, 2008

CHICAGO -- The wide-ranging public corruption probe that led to the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich got its first big break when a grandmother of six walked into a breakfast meeting with shakedown artists wearing an FBI wire.

Pamela Meyer Davis had been trying to win approval from a state health planning board for an expansion of Edward Hospital, the facility she runs in a Chicago suburb, but she realized that the only way to prevail was to retain a politically connected construction company and a specific investment house. Instead of succumbing to those demands, she went to the FBI and U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald in late 2003 and agreed to secretly record conversations about the project.

Her tapes led investigators down a twisted path of corruption that over five years has ensnared a collection of behind-the-scenes figures in Illinois government, including Joseph Cari Jr., a former Democratic National Committee member, and disgraced businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko.

On Dec. 9, that path wound up at the governor's doorstep. Another set of wiretaps suggested that Blagojevich was seeking to capitalize on the chance to fill the Senate seat just vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.

Many of the developments in Operation Board Games never attracted national headlines. They involved expert tactics in which prosecutors used threats of prosecution or prison time to flip bit players in a tangle of elaborate schemes that Fitzgerald has called pay-to-play "on steroids."

But now, Fitzgerald's patient strategy has led to uncomfortable questions not only for Blagojevich but also for the powerful players who privately negotiated with him, unaware that their conversations were being monitored. Democratic Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. faces queries about his interest in the Senate seat, and key players in the Obama presidential transition team -- White House Chief of Staff-designate Rahm Emanuel and adviser Valerie Jarrett -- are being asked about their contacts with the governor on the important appointment.

A defiant Blagojevich has vowed to fight the charges. But the cozy nature of Illinois politics and the state's infamous record of corruption in both political parties suggest that Operation Board Games is far from over.

"We have a lot of information gained from a number of interviews and investigation over the years," Fitzgerald told reporters Dec. 9. "This is a moment of truth for Illinois. We have times when people decry corruption, and yet here we have a situation where there appear to be wide-ranging schemes where people are seeking to make people pay contributions to get contracts or appointments or do other stuff."

The sweep of the case has been surprising even to Meyer Davis, the hospital chief executive. "When I went to the authorities five years ago, I had no idea of the extent of the corruption and how high it reached in Illinois," she told The Washington Post by e-mail. "It's appalling that leaders entrusted with regulating health care have continued to abuse that trust."

Hospital Shakedowns

Meyer Davis's hospital wasn't the only one with problems winning approvals from the state board that reviewed new projects for health-care facilities. The Chicago Medical School wanted a student housing project and found itself steered to the same construction and investment firms. Mercy Hospital faced similar obstacles. The board held up requests for open-heart surgical units and community clinics, and it seemed that a high price tag was attached to moving the board toward action.

At the center of the scheme was board member Stuart Levine, a prominent GOP fundraiser and businessman. Levine also courted Blagojevich, flying him to fundraisers in Texas and New York at which the governor collected more than $120,000 in campaign contributions. Levine held seats on the health facilities board and the teachers pension board, which controlled more than $41 billion in assets.

The conversations Meyer Davis helped record during her meeting at the Eggshell Cafe in suburban Deerfield allowed prosecutors to learn the tactics of Levine, who had cut deals with certain firms for a piece of their contracts.

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