Chicago jury convicts ex-Obama ally
Democratic insider Antoin “Tony” Rezko was convicted of federal corruption charges Wednesday for trading on his clout as a top advisor and fundraiser to Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.
The conviction could have broad repercussions for the Democratic governor, who made Rezko a central player in his Cabinet. It could also prove a political liability for Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who once counted Rezko as a friend and fundraiser.
The 10-woman, two-man jury deliberated nearly two weeks before convicting Rezko of scheming with Stuart Levine, a longtime Republican insider, to extort millions of dollars from firms seeking state business or regulatory approval.
The real estate and restaurant entrepreneur was convicted on 16 of 24 counts -- 12 counts of wire and mail fraud, two counts of money laundering and two counts of aiding and abetting bribery. He was acquitted of attempted extortion.
Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 3. Rezko surrendered to federal custody Wednesday afternoon.
“Mr. Rezko on his own decided that if he was convicted, he wanted to immediately begin serving his sentence,” said his lawyer, Joseph Duffy, who added he would appeal the verdict. “We strongly believe in Mr. Rezko’s innocence, as does he.”
Levine, who pleaded guilty in 2006, became the government’s star witness. He testified that in return for kickbacks, Rezko rigged decisions of two state boards on which Levine sat.
But the defense said Levine was a drug-addled con man who had dodged a life sentence by inventing tales of illegal activity involving Rezko. The defense also questioned Levine’s memory, saying he had abused cocaine and crystal methamphetamine for decades.
In their closing arguments, prosecutors urged jurors not to disregard Levine’s testimony just because they might have found him offensive. Government wiretaps and other witnesses backed up Levine’s account, prosecutors contended.
Trial testimony produced a series of stunning allegations that went well beyond the scope of the criminal charges.
Former state official Ali Ata told jurors he had bought his post with bribes to Rezko and campaign contributions to Blagojevich. Ata was one of several witnesses who said Rezko talked of a plot to end the criminal probe against him by pulling strings with the Bush administration to get U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald fired.
Rezko had befriended many Illinois politicians and was a major fundraiser for some, most prominently Blagojevich and Obama. The criminal charges against Rezko had nothing to do with his connection to Obama. But that link still proved a nagging headache during Obama’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, especially in the wake of Chicago Tribune revelations that linked Rezko to a 2005 real estate deal involving Obama’s home.
The verdict poses problems that are far more acute for Blagojevich, who swept to victory in 2002 with claims that he would clean up Illinois government after the scandal-plagued years of his now-imprisoned predecessor, George H. Ryan.
The governor, who has not been charged with wrongdoing, steadfastly maintains that he is committed to reform.
Tribune staff writer Jodi Cohen contributed to this report.