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Conviction raises question of Rezko now cooperating
Ex-political powerbroker guilty on 16 of 24 corruption charges
By Rob Olmstead and Joseph Ryan | Daily Herald Staff

Antoin "Tony" Rezko returns to the Federal Courthouse where a jury found him guilty on 16 counts of a 24-count indictment in his corruption trail in Chicago Wednesday,

 

Associated Press

Lead defense attorney Joseph Duffy talks brieftly with the media after the verdict was announced at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald answers media questions in the lobby of Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago.

 

Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich talks to the media about political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko's guilty verdict Wednesday.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 6/4/2008 2:52 PM | Updated: 6/5/2008 7:53 AM

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Will Tony Rezko flip?

There is perhaps no more pertinent question on the minds of many in state, city and county governments today after the corruption conviction Wednesday of one of their most influential powerbrokers.

But if Rezko is of a mind to start spilling what he knows about allegations made during his trial against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he gave no indication of it Wednesday when he immediately surrendered himself to custody.

Whether the move was a demonstration of Rezko's resolve to do his time without talking, or simply a desire to try to get his prison term behind him as quickly as possible, is impossible to say.

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Rezko's lawyer, Joseph Duffy, said the move did not come at his prompting.

"It was his decision," Duffy said.

Equally enigmatic was the governor's response to the conviction on 16 of 24 corruption counts of his friend and chief fundraiser, whose crimes came as a result of the immense power Blagojevich gave him to influence appointments to state boards and high-level posts.

Jurors decided Rezko used that power to steer the construction of suburban hospitals and the investment of public school teachers' pensions in exchange for kickbacks.

Blagojevich made no apologies for his friend, did not condemn Rezko's behavior, and addressed none of the bombshell allegations made by witnesses against him.

"Tony Rezko is a friend and was a supporter," Blagojevich said. "On a personal level I'm deeply sad for what has happened to Tony."

While Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing, several witnesses at Rezko's trial testified the governor made incriminating statements and was complicit with his friend's pay-to-play crimes.

The U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, declined a reporter's invitation to give Rezko any advice on whether he could shorten his impending sentence by talking. He did note enticingly, however, that "any defendant has the opportunity to seek to cooperate."

And while he also wouldn't comment on what Wednesday's conviction means for the governor, Fitzgerald was clear that the trial showed Illinois is a cesspool of corruption.

"Anyone who followed the trial … had to be appalled by the conduct involved," he said.

The investigation is continuing, he noted.

Rezko's poker face attitude began from the moment U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve started reading the verdict about 3:45 p.m. Wednesday.

He only blinked while the first guilty verdict was read, his hands folded neatly in front of him. As the guilty counts rolled in, however, he occasionally rubbed his tongue on the inside of his cheek and flexed his jaw, a muscle visibly protruding on the side of his head.

His two sons sat immediately behind him and were equally reserved, but one's face tensed and turned red as the hits kept coming.

Rezko was "obviously disappointed," said defense attorney Duffy, who pledged an appeal and added Illinois currently is a "difficult environment in which to get a fair trial on corruption charges."

But jurors said they were more than fair, painstakingly sifting through a mountain of evidence and acquitting Rezko on the charges for which they had reasonable doubt.

"We took great care and (gave much) thought to it," said juror Mona Lisa Mauricette, one of eight jurors who participated in a post-verdict news conference.

And to the extent that Duffy argued the government's chief witness, Stuart Levine, was unreliable, jurors bought that argument.

"We gave it (Levine's testimony) no weight," said juror Andrea Coleman.

Instead, jurors gave credence only to those things Levine testified to that were backed up by other evidence and Levine's surreptitiously recorded telephone conversations.

"Without that wiretap, a whole lot of things would not have happened," acknowledged Fitzgerald.

What the tapes revealed, and jurors convicted Rezko for, was a litany of corruption on the state's various regulatory boards, in particular the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board and the Teachers Retirement System, both of which Stuart Levine sat on with Blagojevich's blessing.

Levine testified he sought, and received, reappointment to the boards through Rezko, ingratiating himself with him by bringing in a $1,000 check for Rezko's favorite charity, St. Jude's Hospital.

From there, Levine took cuts of "finder's fees" from investment firm brokers in exchange for assuring that those firms got teacher pension funds. Levine said he arranged to split his take with Rezko.

While feds swooped in to confront Levine before many of the payoffs were delivered, a key Rezko friend, Joseph Aramanda, received a no-work payment from a finder's fee on an investment of TRS money that Levine made sure was approved. Rezko at the time owed Aramanda money.

The health board corruption was even more obvious, apparently.

Juror Andrea Coleman said the jury reached a verdict on that issue right away.

That scam involved the planning of a $1.5 million bribe from a Levine crony who was in line to build a hospital in Crystal Lake for Mercy Hospital. Again, Levine planned to split the money with Rezko, he said.

That scheme, and all the Levine recordings, came to light in large part because Edward Hospital CEO Pamela Davis of Naperville went to federal authorities when she felt she was being asked to offer a similar bribe in exchange for approval to build a facility in Plainfield. That gave authorities probable cause to begin taping Levine.

Fitzgerald said he hopes the verdict sends a message to politicians that corruption will not be tolerated.

"If their morals don't get them (to act honestly), then I hope that the fear of going to jail will," he said.

In addition to Wednesday's conviction, the 52-year-old Wilmette businessman faces another set of federal charges alleging loan fraud in connection with his pizzeria chain. Plus, Rezko faces an arrest warrant in Las Vegas for writing $450,000 in bad checks for gambling debt on the Strip in 2006.

Although clearly a victory for prosecutors, Wednesday's verdict was not without disappointments for them.

In the charge involving a firm owned by the producer of "Million Dollar Baby," Thomas Rosenberg, prosecutors claimed Rezko and others sought a $1.5 million contribution to Blagojevich's campaign fund. In another case, Blagojevich's father-in-law, Chicago Alderman Dick Mell was to receive a cut. That plan didn't materialize, and Mell denies the allegation. The jury did not convict Rezko in relation to either.

Still, prosecutors are still in the driver's seat, able to offer Rezko a rich reward if he cooperates. The charges against him on which he was convicted, with the exception of two, carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison.

"There's a lot of exposure for how much time," he can serve, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald, who sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison for corruption and convicted mob bosses, also is probing hiring and other pay-to-play allegations in the Blagojevich administration. In the Ryan case, a top aide to Ryan testified against his former boss after being convicted himself of corruption.

The federal prosecutor is also reportedly eyeing the lucrative real estate dealings of the governor's wife, Patti.

A second Blagojevich insider, Chris Kelly, has been indicted on charges of tax evasion tied to illegal gambling.

Several allegations against the governor came out in testimony, including that he traded high-level positions for campaign cash and told a prospective fundraiser he would award state contracts in exchange for campaign cash. One witness, former Illinois Finance Authority director Ali Ata, said he paid $25,000 in bribes to Rezko that in turn was paid to contractors for work on the governor's Chicago home.

The governor, who was elected on a reform platform following Ryan, has denied any wrongdoing.

Since the early 1990s, the Rezko has been a key fundraiser for both Chicago and Cook County politicians, and had once close ties to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate.

Obama has acknowledged Rezko helped raise about $250,000 for his state Senate and U.S. Senate campaigns. And Illinois' junior senator hasn't been able to shake suspicions over Rezko's role in Obama's purchase of a Hyde Park home.

But while Obama has distanced himself from Rezko, Blagojevich has not.

"The jury's decision is yet another reminder that ours is a system of government that is ruled by laws, and not by men," was all Blagojevich would say of the verdict at a hastily called news conference

A federal jury made life for Gov. Rod Blagojevich much harder today, convicting his former chief fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko on 16 of 24 corruption-related counts.

Although Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing, several witnesses at his trial laid misdeeds directly at the governor's feet, claiming he made incriminating statements and participated in questionable pay-to-play politics.

"Anyone who followed the trial … had to be appalled by the conduct involved (in state government)," said the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald. He declined to comment on Blagojevich directly, however.

Blagojevich scheduled an improptu press conference after the verdict, but answered no questions and did not address any of the allegations directed at him during the trial.

"Tony Rezko is a friend and was a supporter," said Blagojevich. "On a personal level, I'm deeply sad for what has happened to Tony."

He then abruptly left the press conference.

Rezko sat stoically while the verdict was read by U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve. He only blinked while the first guilty verdict was read, his hands folded neatly in front of him. As the guilty co

unts rolled in, however, he occasionally rubbed his tongue on the inside of his cheek and visibly flexed his jaw.

His two sons sat immediately behind him and were equally stoic, but one's face tensed and turned red as the guilty verdicts kept coming.

Prosecutors immediately sought to have Rezko taken into custody, but Rezko pre-empted the motion by announcing through his attorney he wanted to begin serving his sentence immediately. He waved goodbye to his family and friends as he was escorted out of the courtroom.

Rezko was "obviously disappointed," said his attorney Joseph Duffy, who pledged an appeal and added Illinois currently is a "difficult environment in which to get a fair trial on corruption charges."

But jurors said they were more than fair, painstakingly sifting through a mountain of evidence and acquitting Rezko on the charges of which they had reasonable doubt.

"We took great care and (gave much) thought to it," said juror Mona Lisa Mauricette, one of the eight jurors who participated in a post-verdict press conference.

And to the extent that Duffy argued the government's chief witness, Stuart Levine, was unreliable, jurors bought that argument.

"We gave it (Levine's testimony) no weight," said juror Andrea Coleman.

Instead, jurors gave credence only to those things Levine testified to that were backed up by other evidence and Levine's telephone conversations that had been recorded without his knowledge.

"Without that wiretap, a whole lot of things would not have happened," acknowledged Fitzgerald.

What the tapes revealed, and jurors convicted Rezko for, was a litany of corruption on the state's varous regulatory boards, in particular the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board and the Teachers Retirement System, both of which Stuart Levine sat on. He testified he sought, and received, reappointment to the boards through Rezko, ingratiating himself with Rezko by bringing in a $1,000 check for Rezko's favorite charity, St. Jude's Hospital.

From there, Levine took cuts of "finders fees" from investment firm brokers in exchange for assuring that those firms got TRS money. Levine said he arranged to split his take with Rezko.

The game-playing with TRS money, which is teachers' pension money, clearly struck a cord with one juror, an educator herself.

"We were here to represent the people who didn't have a voice, and those were the teachers … and the health care system," said juror Susan Lopez of Yorkville, a suburban school administrator.

The health board corruption was even more obvious, apparently.

Juror Andrea Coleman said the jury reached a verdict on that issue right away.

That scam involved the planning of a $1.5 million bribe from a Levine crony who was in line to build a hospital in Crystal Lake for Mercy Hospital. Again, Levine planned to split the money with Rezko, he said.

That scheme, and all the Levine recordings, came to light in large part because Edward Hospital CEO Pamela Davis of Naperville went to the feds when she felt she was being asked to offer a similar bribe in exchange for approval to build a facility in Plainfield. That gave the feds probable cause to begin taping Levine.

When members of the panel were asked if they had thought before the trial that Illinois government was deeply corrupt, many broke into laughter, and said "no comment."

Fitzgerald said he hopes the verdict sends a message to politicians that corruption will not be tolerated.

"If their morals don't get them (to act honestly), then I hope that the fear of going to jail will," he said.

In response to a queston about whether Rezko could now ease his sentence by cooperating, Fitzgerald declined to offer Rezko any advice, but added "any defendant has the opportunity to seek to cooperate."

The guilty verdicts delivered on several counts are expected to reverberate through the halls of power - from Chicago and Cook County to the state Capitol - that Rezko made a career out of navigating. Plus, the 52-year-old Wilmette businessman faces another set of federal charges alleging loan fraud in connection with his pizzeria chain.

Wednesday's verdict was not without disappointments for prosecutors.

In the charge involving a firm owned by the producer of "Million Dollar Baby," prosecutors claimed Rezko and others sought a $1.5 million contribution to Blagojevich's campaign fund. In another case, Blagojevich's father-in-law, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell was to receive a cut. That plan didn't materialize and Mell denies the allegation.

Still, prosecutors are in the driver's seat, able to offer Rezko a compelling reward if he cooperates. The charges against him on which he was convicted, with the exception of two, carry maximum penalties of 20 years in prison.

"There's a lot of exposure for how much time," he can serve, said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald - who sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison for corruption and convicted mob bosses - is also probing hiring and other pay-to-play allegations in the Blagojevich administration. The federal prosecutor is also reportedly eyeing the lucrative real estate dealings of the governor's wife, Patti.

A second Blagojevich insider, Chris Kelly, has been indicted for tax evasion tied to illegal gambling.

Several allegations against the governor came out in testimony, including that he traded high-level positions for campaign cash and told a prospective fundraiser he would award state contracts in exchange for campaign cash. One witness, former Illinois Finance Authority director Ali Ata, said he paid $25,000 in bribes to Rezko to pay for work on the governor's Chicago home.

The governor, who was elected following Ryan on a reform platform, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

Since the early 1990s, the Syrian-born, U.S. citizen Rezko has been a key fundraiser for both Chicago and Cook County politicians as well as a close friend to U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential front runner.

Obama has acknowledged Rezko helped raise about $250,000 for his state senate and U.S. Senate campaigns. And Illinois' junior senator hasn't been able to shake suspicions over Rezko's roll in Obama's purchase of a Hyde Park home.

Rezko bought an adjacent vacant lot at the same time Obama purchased the house in 2005. Rezko later sold a piece of the lot to Obama so he could expand his side yard. Obama called the move "boneheaded" but has said nothing improper or illegal occurred in the dealings.

Daily Herald Staff Writers Dave Beery, Sheila Ahern and Christy Gutowski contributed to this report.