With federal investigators closing in, Illinois political insiders hoped to avoid prosecution by tapping Bush administration architect Karl Rove to oust U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, according to accusations made in federal Wednesday.
An attorney for Rove and the Republican insider accused of leaning on him, Bob Kjellander, deny the accusations.
The U.S. attorney's office in Chicago dropped the bombshell allegations as part of the corruption trial against Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former fundraiser and confidant to Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Federal prosecutors say two witnesses can testify that they were told by two separate Kjellander associates that he was working behind the scenes to get Fitzgerald removed. Kjellander is a longtime friend of Rove's.
The power play was allegedly plotted before Fitzgerald received a questionably low ranking by the Bush administration and the controversial ousting of eight U.S. Attorneys.
The first hints of the far-reaching accusations came out in court late Tuesday when Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton read the grand jury statements of Steven Loren, a lawyer who was convicted of hiding bribes in the state teacher pension board scandal .
Veteran insider Bill Cellini "said it was Bob Kjellander's job to take care of the U.S. attorney," Hamilton read from the transcript, which recounted a late 2004 meeting between Cellini and Loren over how to handle the deepening federal probe.
That statement was not further explained Tuesday as Rezko's defense attorneys objected to its relevance. The jury was not in the courtroom when the statements were read.
But in taking up the matter again Wednesday morning, Hamilton elaborated and added that Rezko business partner Ali Ata is also expected to testify Rezko told him a similar story.
"Mr. Kjellander is working with Mr. Rove to have Mr. Fitzgerald removed so someone else can come in (and end the corruption investigation)," Hamilton said in summarizing Ata's expected testimony about Rezko's statements.
Randall Samborn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, declined to comment further.
Ata is the former head of the Illinois Finance Authority who pleaded guilty Tuesday to tax fraud and lying to authorities about how he landed a $127,000-a-year spot. Ata says he traded campaign contributions to Blagojevich for his state job.
Kjellander, an Illinois lobbyist, is a national Republican Party figure who recently served as treasurer to the Republican National Committee. He has been friends with Rove since the early 1970s, when the two got their start in Illinois politics.
Kjellander helped orchestrate President Bush's Midwest campaigns.
"I have never discussed with Karl Rove or any other person on the White House staff the proposition that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should or could be removed from his office," Kjellander said Wednesday. "And I never have told anyone that I would discuss with Karl Rove or any other person on the White House staff the proposition that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald could or should be removed from his office."
A White House spokeswoman referred all questions to Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney.
"There is absolutely no truth whatsoever to the allegations that he took any action at all to seek Patrick Fitzgerald's removal," Luskin said.
He added that Rove doesn't recall Kjellander "ever raising the issue, and he certainly never talked to anybody at the White House or elsewhere about removing Fitzgerald."
In late 2004, Fitzgerald was also the special prosecutor probing the Valerie Plame leak in which White House officials were accused of illegally disclosing her CIA identity in retribution for her husband's public opposition to the Iraq war.
The investigation ultimately ended in the perjury conviction of Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby.
In 2005, the Bush administration reportedly ranked Fitzgerald as one of several U.S. attorneys who did "not distinguish themselves" -- at the same time he was pursuing landmark cases covering Plame, the Chicago Outfit and former Republican Gov. George Ryan as well as the administrations of Blagojevich, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Cook County Board President John Stroger.
The rankings later evolved into the notable ousting of eight U.S. attorneys in 2006, a move that was widely criticized as being politically motivated. Some of the attorneys fired were given the same ranking as Fitzgerald.
The ensuing scandal, along with others, led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Traditionally, presidents have been expected to remove politics from the choice of U.S. attorneys so as not to influence the prosecution or investigations of political figures across the country.
Kjellander has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He declined to talk Wednesday about other aspects of the Rezko case.
He is, however, alleged to be connected to the overall scheme in which Rezko and others are accused of shaking down state contractors for bribes and campaign contributions. Kjellander received about $800,000 in questioned "finder's fees" tied to a bond deal under Blagojevich.
Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said the governor was unaware of any moves to oust Fitzgerald.
"This is the first we've heard of such a thing," she said.
In court Wednesday morning, Judge Amy St. Eve ultimately ruled Loren couldn't testify before jurors about his conversation with Cellini in 2004 because it was unrelated to Rezko.
Cellini did not return repeated calls seeking comment.
St. Eve has not ruled on Ata's expected testimony, which more directly relates to Rezko.