In a stark back-and-forth exchange, the lead attorneys in the Antoin "Tony" Rezko trial tried to convince jurors of their vastly different views of the facts Tuesday during closing arguments.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner hammered away at the defense contention that Rezko was simply the victim of an avalanche of unreliable witnesses who put him at the center of a scheme to defraud the state through the Teachers Retirement System and the Health Facilities Planning Board.
Joseph Duffy, Rezko's attorney, painted Rezko as the victim of the government's star witness, Stuart Levine, an admitted con man, drug user and liar who even fibbed to government agents after he promised not to.
Rezko is accused of conspiring with board members to solicit kickbacks in exchange for securing state business for regulatory approval for projects.
"It's OK for the government to be fooled," said Duffy. "But if I suggest to you that Mr. Rezko was the victim of the same, I'll be chastised (by the government)."
The government was conned by Levine, a member of both state boards, said Duffy. Levine, confronted with damning tape recordings of himself, saw a life behind bars and made up a story about Rezko to secure his own plea deal for just 5 ½ years in prison, Duffy said.
"The defendant is not a victim here," shot back Niewoehner. "This is not an incredible string of circumstances. … This is a crime, ladies and gentleman. This is a crime that involves the highest levels of power in the state of Illinois."
Rezko, as the key fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, enjoyed unequaled power to appoint board members and influence state decisions, Niewoehner said, and Rezko used that clout for his personal benefit, he contended.
Admitting that Levine was a crook and a liar, Niewoehner intimated that Levine simply found a like-minded individual in Rezko.
"What does Stuart Levine realize about this guy?" Niewoehner asked the jury. "One: He's powerful. Two: He's corrupt. And three: He needs money. That is the perfect combination for this corrupt scheme."
Niewoehner begged the jury not to be distracted by Duffy's focus on Levine's distasteful character. Instead, he suggested, jurors should take what Levine testified to and compare it to what other witnesses and secretly made recordings showed.
Duffy compared the government's case to an inverted pyramid, with the only foundation being Levine at the bottom of that upside-down pyramid.
"What happens when you remove the support of Stuart Levine? It crumbles. Just like the government's case," said Duffy.
Niewoehner suggested that all of the tapes and witnesses meshed with Levine's account.
"It's not some pyramid. It's a circle. It all works together," he said.
Taking on Duffy's chief target of sarcasm, an April 2004 meeting between Levine and Rezko at the Standard Club, Niewoehner tried to show the meeting was exactly what Levine said it was: a confab to divvy up a series of contracts and bribes between Levine, Rezko and Levine's partner, Robert Weinstein.
"All you need Stuart Levine for is to tell you what the (Standard Club) room looks like and what they had for dinner. In fact, you can get that from the receipt. They had steak and wine," he said.
To prove his point, Niewoehner pointed out that Levine testified he and Weinstein were in line to receive two-thirds of bribes, with Rezko to receive the remaining third.
Those figures are verified by tapes of Levine talking to Weinstein, where he tells Weinstein the two will receive about $3.9 million from the corrupt deals, he said.
Niewoehner then walked the jury through each corrupt deal Levine had alleged, verifying from tape recordings, other witnesses or board records each amount Levine alleged was stolen. On TRS deals, the illegal amounts were to be received from finders' fees on the deals.
When Niewoehner was done, the figures added up to $3.915 million -- almost exactly the round figure Levine had told Weinstein about in the recorded phone call.
"The tapes, the witnesses, they all work together and Stuart Levine simply gives you the local color," Niewoehner said.
Duffy tried to discredit other witnesses, such as Sheldon Pekin, who testified that he was directed to split a finder's fee on a TRS deal with Joseph Aramanda -- a Rezko friend who had no connection to Levine.
Pekin and Aramanda, Duffy recounted, were told time and again that Pekin could legally split his fees with whomever he wished, and Rezko gave the name simply in an effort to direct a friend to potential finder fee business. There was no proof that Rezko knew Aramanda would get finder's fee money for no work, Duffy said.
"Shelly Pekin is well aware of what's going on in this deal," said Niewoehner.
Rezko was in hock to Aramanda on several business deals and used his clout to direct money Aramanda's way in order to satisfy his debt, Niewoehner contended.
Niewoehner also reminded jurors of Elie Maloof's testimony that Rezko told him not to cooperate with the feds.
"He told them (witnesses) to lie and he told them to backdate documents. … He told them the U.S. attorney will be replaced and cooperators will be dealt with," Niewoehner said, recounting the testimony.
Duffy suggested those and other witnesses were unreliable, one having Alzheimer's, another on medication, and another being drunk when he allegedly spoke with Rezko.
At the end of the arguments, Judge Amy St. Eve gave the jurors their instructions and sent them back to begin deliberations, which they will resume on Thursday after a day's break. Four alternate jurors were sent home and will not be part of those deliberations. The remaining twelve broke within the hour, leaving for the day around 5 p.m.