April 4, 2008
Rezko Sleaze Engulfs Governor of IllinoisBy Rick Moran
Maybe it's something in the water. Or perhaps it's a virus that only infects politicians and their cronies in the state in which Barack Obama chose to build his poilitical base.
Personally, I prefer the "politicians being inhabited by aliens" scenario where the outrageously corrupt behavior of our political leaders in the state is the result of an invasion of extraterrestrials who have taken over their bodies and minds.
If so, they certainly have moved in and made themselves right at home. The recent political history of the state is replete with some of the most jaw dropping examples of illegal shenanigans one can imagine.
No fewer than 3 of the last 7 governors of Illinois have gone to jail for corruption. The most recent inmate being previous governor George Ryan who pressured state workers to raise money for his campaigns when Secretary of State, while overseeing a "pay for play" scheme at drivers license bureaus where unqualified truck drivers bribed state employees to get licenses. One such driver was involved in a horrific accident that killed 6 children. The resulting investigation into that crash unmasked the conspiracy. More than 70 lobbyists, state employees, and government officials have been convicted in connection with the scheme.
And to list the corruption associated with Mayor Daley's Chicago Democratic Machine would require an encyclopedia-length dissertation. The most recent example of Machine sleaze was the conviction of one of the Mayor's closest aides in a city hall patronage scandal that had Barack Obama praising hizzoner for beginning to "clean up" city hall.
Frankly, I believe the Augean Stables would be an easier place to start cleaning up. Might as well start with something less taxing than trying to clean up Chicago politics.
The sleaze is not limited to Chicago -- not by any means. The sad fact is, the entire state is in some ways a gigantic cesspool of bid rigging, kickback schemes, cronyism, and outright bribery greased by campaign contributions, and where the businessman, the criminal, and the politician merge into a seamless, corrupt beast that greedily feeds at the public trough.
The beast survives due to an apathetic public and, despite some noble exceptions, a curiously quiescent press who seem to have adopted the blasé attitude in some cases that everyone does it so what's new?
What is new is that someone has stepped forward and under oath, given chapter and verse of the Hitchhiker's Guide To Political Sleaze in Illinois. For seven long days prominent Republican fundraiser and financier Stuart Levine has been in the witness chair at the trial of Antoin "Tony" Rezko -- Chicago political "fixer" and star fundraiser for both Governor Blagojevitch and Senator Barack Obama. Levine is the primary witness in the federal trial alleging massive fraud and extortion on Rezko's part, shaking down firms doing business with the state by forcing them to make contributions to the Governor's campaign in return for state contracts.
Levine is a character out of Dante's Purgatorio -- a tortured soul addicted to cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs while leading a secret life filled with drug fueled day long parties at a suburban hotel. At age 62, Levine proves the adage you're never to old to act like an immature idiot. Details of what really went on at these all day sybaritic trysts with Levine and up to 5 male friends are sketchy because the judge has refused the prosecution permission to get into the sexual aspects of Levine's romps.
No matter. It is on the drug use that the defense will concentrate, hammering home to the jury that Levine's story is not believable because he very well could have imagined it all. And what gives impetus to the defense claim of Levine being a first class fantasist is the unreal scope of the corruption that he, Rezko, and a few cronies spread throughout the state government in order to raise money for Blagojevitch as well as line their own pockets with "finders fees" and other kickbacks.
Tony Rezko had his fingers in an extraordinary number of money making pies -- property developer, slumlord, pizza franchise owner, and friend and patron to dozens of the most prominent politicians from both parties in Illinois. He even went in on a money making scheme with a former Chicago cop to train Iraqi "power plant guards" in security techniques -- a contract signed by a school chum of Rezko's who is a former Iraqi Minister of Electricity, currently under indictment for embezzling $2.5 billion in reconstruction funds.
The gig with Levine was just one of many projects with which Rezko was involved where he used his connections with politicians to enrich himself -- legally in most cases. But the way Levine describes the shakedown operation, Rezko could have no illusions about the legality of what he was doing.
Levine was in a perfect position to initiate the kickback scheme. Not only was he a power in state politics, he sat on two prominent state boards where he was able to handpick members who would pretty much do as he asked. And what he asked was that they steer state contracts to companies that gave money to Blagojevitch. Rezko was very helpful in this regard as he recommended Levine's cronies to Blagojevitch for positions on the two regulatory boards -- a hospital expansion board and the Teachers Retirement System.
Levine also received what he euphemistically refers to as "finders fees" from the companies for assisting them in getting the contracts. The feds call them what they are: illegal kickbacks. Until the government swooped down on him in January 2006, Levine carried on with his scheme, using Rezko's clout with the governor to staff the two regulatory boards he served on with cronies who would do his bidding.
But things didn't go so smoothly always. On Wednesday, jurors listened to testimony from Levine that may put Governor Blagojevitch himself in legal jeopardy. Stephen Spruiell from National Review sums up the story of one investment company who refused to play ball:
As you can see, when it comes to political corruption in Illinois, there is only one party: "The Green Party" -- as in the color of cash.
But Rosenberg was not someone they could threaten or push around. In a phone conversation taped by the government, Rosenberg angrily denounced Cellini and Levine and promised to "take them down" if they didn't back off.
This set off alarm bells with Rezko, Levine, Cellini and others involved in the kickback schemes. Clearly, if Rosenberg tattled, they'd all go to jail for a very long time. So in the end, they only backed off putting the arm on Rosenberg, but they made good on their threat to deny Rosenberg any more state business.
In this, they had the blessing of the Governor of the State of Illinois Rod Blagojevitch.
Apparently, Rezko related the entire story to Blagojevitch, who it appears agreed with the crooks that Rosenberg should be frozen out of doing future business with the state. Levine is heard in another taped conversation saying that "the big guy" himself had given the word.
This would be a clear misuse of his office and, depending of what the governor knew of Rezko, Levine, and their cronies, it could lead to possible conspiracy charges as well.
NRO's Stephen Spruiell interviews Cook County Commissioner Tony Peraica, a Republican who says that Blagojevitch's indictment is "inevitable:"
And what of Barack Obama? A couple of the players in this little drama have close connections to the Senator. In addition to Rezko, there is the case of Allison Davis, Obama's old boss at the law firm of Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland who was also a business partner of Rezko. Davis's firm handled an unknown amount of business for Rezko's property management company -- the same company under investigation for illegal activities in connection with government contracts used to rehab low income housing (an unrelated investigation to the Rezko trial).
Davis, a friend of Rosenberg's, acted as a go-between, carrying the investment manager's message to Rezko that he might raise some money for the governor's campaign if that would help keep his business in the mix for a contract with the teachers pension fund board that Levine ran as his own little fiefdom. This didn't satisfy Rezko who told Davis to have Rosenberg call Levine. From there, Levine put the squeeze on Rosenberg as described above.
Neither Obama or Davis will get very specific about how much work the law firm did for Rezko or what Obama did over the years to assist Rezko in the management of several low income properties that by all accounts were barely habitable. Most of them have been condemned as of today. And the government wants to know just what Rezko did with those millions in rehab funds and loans he received from the city, state, and federal government.
Obama may not be an intimate part of all this corruption. But it is equally clear that he has benefited politically from his association with the sleaze artists like Rezko. He has also eschewed attaching himself too closely to the reform movement in Cook County politics by endorsing for office not only Mayor Daley, but the notorious former Cook County Board Chairman John Stroger and the equally corrupt Alderman Dorothy Tillman.
It appears that when principle collides with political expediency, Obama has chosen to ally himself with those who can do his career the most good - even at the expense, as Commissioner Peraica says of "principles and morals and good government."
Obama as an "agent of change?" As they say in Chicago, "Not hardly."
Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Rightwing Nuthouse.