Chicago Corruption Trials and the Sounds of SilenceBy Larry Bell
Barack Obama's and Rod Blagojevich's convicted felon fund-raiser, Tony Rezko, has recently been sentenced to ten years minus 44 months for time served in jail for wide-ranging corruption. Many people would like to ask him about his connections to others who knew -- even participated in -- practices that helped to get him planted in the pokey. They are also curious about why he was never subpoenaed to testify at trials of some of those who were subsequently convicted of corrupt associations with him, including former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich.
It's very apparent that the FBI had compelling criminal evidence against Blago long in advance. This included information provided by Stuart Levine, a lawyer who had served on the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board when then-State Senator Obama chaired the Illinois Health & Human Services Committee. Levine had pled guilty in October 2006 to some of the same corruption counts as Rezko, and was since cooperating with the feds to escape imprisonment.
So why did U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald wait until December 9, 2008, just about one month after the 2008 presidential election, to arrest Blago following years of investigation? Right from the jump, let's recognize that Fitz is broadly regarded as an upstanding, nonpartisan prosecutor. After all, he was appointed by President G.W. Bush, and had previously lost no time pursuing charges against Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide, Scooter Libby, and President G.W. Bush's deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, for their falsely alleged outing of former CIA agent Valerie Plame. Nor had he dallied in going after former Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, in a scandal that had been had been swirling around long before Fitzgerald was appointed.
In fact, these previous actions have actually increased suspicions in some quarters that failure to expedite the Blago trial or subpoena Rezko may have been influenced by pressures to keep a lid on embarrassing information that could have impacted then-Senator Obama's election chances. Fitzgerald was obviously aware of this sensitivity at the time of his press conference statement on the day of Blago's arrest. He went out of his way to dispel such speculation, declaring: "We make no allegations that Obama was aware of any alleged scheming by Blagojevich." Yet the one person who could have conclusively proved otherwise was never called to give testimony.
Some of the reporters present weren't so sure, questioning reasons for the delay and what the DOJ knew regarding Obama's knowledge of charged criminal activities leading up to the arrest. One asked:
"Sir, just to be crystal clear and to make clear, you're not aware of any conversations then that took place with the governor and any member of Barack Obama's transition team at all?"
"And what I simply said is that you can read the complaint. I'm not going to sit here with a 76-page complaint and parse through it. That's what we are alleging. And I'm just -- I'm not going to start going down and saying, did anyone talk to anyone."
A reporter went on to ask:
"...you talked about keeping your superiors informed as to what was going on, I'm assuming that means the Attorney General. In the briefings that President-elect Obama had over the past week with various government departments, would it be possible for him to have been briefed on what was going on here with regard to this investigation?"
The normally articulate Fitzgerald responded:
"I--I--I--I'm not--I'm not--I'm not the briefer, I'm not at those briefings. But I would say this was very close in Washington, and on the need to know basis. So, I'm--but I'm not going to--I'm not the briefer, so I'm not going to represent what happens. But--I'll leave it at that."
So what might some of those possible politically uncomfortable Obama-Blago-Rezko connections be? Actually, there are quite a few:
The FBI's Operation Board Games Cases
As chairman of the Illinois Health & Human Services Committee beginning in January 2003, then-Senator Obama oversaw activities of the Health Facilities Planning Board that granted permits required for proposed hospital expansions. The Board had a long bipartisan history of corrupt practices dating back to previous administrations of two Republican governors who appointed members in exchange for kickbacks. Governor Blago was certainly no exception. Tony Rezko was his deal-arranger, and also a big Blago and Obama campaign contributor.
On June 7, 2004, politically connected Republican Stuart Levine abruptly resigned from the Planning Board after learning that a hospital official was wearing a federal wire during meetings to expose extortion attempts by him and others for contributions to Blago on the eve of important hospital expansion votes. A month later, he also resigned from a seat on the state Teachers Retirement System board. It ultimately became obvious that the Blagojevich administration was under federal criminal investigation. On May 9, 2005, Levine was indicted on corruption charges, and federal subpoenas were issued to numerous administration sources, including Rezko.
In addition to campaign donations to Blago and Obama through the Planning Board, Obama reportedly also received a $20,000 contribution from the Teachers Retirement System pension fund.
Levine testified as the star witness in the Operation Board Games corruption trial and pled guilty to avoid a life sentence. After jury selection began, the questionnaire list of possible witnesses who might be called included Barack Obama.
According to trial records, a June 2003 e-mail exchange shows that Obama was one of eight officials who received names of new Board nominees in advance from David Wilhelm, who had headed Blago's 2002 campaign for mayor. Many or all of the successful new appointees were contributors to campaigns of then-presidential hopeful Blagojevich and U.S. Senate hopeful Obama.
Levine testified that when he thanked Blago for reappointing him to a Planning Board seat, the governor responded, "Never discuss any state board with me; discuss them with either Tony Rezko or Chris Kelly." Kelly, along with Rezko, was a top Blago fundraiser and close friend. Blago then added: "But you stick with us and you'll do very well for yourself." Levine said in testimony: "I took this to mean you have an opportunity to make a lot of money."
There can be no doubt that Obama knew of Rezko's strong connection to Blago. This is evident since, even as a state senator, he went through Rezko to have his and Michelle's close friend Dr. Eric Whitaker appointed by Blago to high positions at the Chicago Medical Center.
Real Estate Connections
A convicted felon and FBI informant John Thomas (formerly Bernard Barton), wearing a wire, conducted surveillance of numerous visits of Blago, Obama, and other public officials, including Chicago Housing Authority Chairman Marty Nesbitt, to Rezko's near north side real estate office. Although the Chicago Tribune was already aware of Thomas' role in May 2006, Fitzgerald intervened to prevent the paper from releasing an article about this because the editors were told that such a release would derail the investigation and put people in danger.
No taped conversations involving Obama or Blago, if any actually exist, have ever been released, and Thomas was never called to testify at Blago's trial.
An FBI agent presented a chart to the jury in Blago's trial on April 28, 2008, showing 257 calls from Rezko's phones to Blago's chief of staff, Lon Monk, between March and May 2004 alone. They also had records of all calls between Levine and Rezko from November 2002 to May 2004. Yet no records of calls between Obama and Rezko, which they must have had as well, were released at the trial.
Obama was still chairman of the Illinois Health & Human Services Committee when lawmakers learned that the feds were investigating the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board schemes in the spring of 2004...a year before Obama entered into a scandalous real estate deal with Rezko.
In 2005, Rezko and his wife, Rita, helped Barack and Michelle buy a $1.65-million house in Chicago's Kingwood neighborhood that was beyond their financial means. Rezko was under federal investigation for unrelated corruption and bribery offenses at the time.
Rita purchased adjoining land for $625,000 that the owner of both properties insisted on selling at the same time and later sold Obama one-sixth of her adjacent vacant lot for $105,000 so that the Obamas could expand their yard. Real estate specialist Kenneth J. Conner, a whistle-blower in the lot sale transaction, told FBI agents who were investigating the deal in 2007 that bank officials replaced an appraisal review he prepared on the property, reducing the house value and inflating the land value. After he was fired from his position as a real estate and commercial credit analyst at the Mutual Bank Corp. for reporting the Rezko-Obama property deal, Conner filed a complaint in the Cook County Circuit Court. Conner and the FBI agents later discussed what appeared to be a $300,000 Rezko "payoff, bribe, kick-back."
Questions have also arisen concerning Illinois Senator Obama's relationship with Rezko's close friend Aiham Alsammarae, a one-time Iraqi official who mysteriously escaped from an Iraqi jail in 2006 following conviction of corruption while serving as electricity minister. After he was arrested, a proposed $50-million contract for an Illinois-based private security guard enterprise called "Companion Security" turned up in Iraqi government court documents in connection with his theft of $650 million from the Coalition Provisional Authority established by the U.S and our allies between 2003 and 2006. Blago's office and Illinois Homeland Security had offered to provide an Army depot in Savanna, Illinois as the training site.
In December 2009, World Net Daily reported that "Obama's senatorial office engaged in six months of negotiations with a company controlled by Rezko to lobby the U.S. government to push through a nixed contract to train Iraqi security personnel at a site in Chicago." The contract was signed on April 18, 2005, one month before Alsammarae left his government post prior to his arrest. His replacement later aborted the deal. Alsammarae had also awarded another Rezko-controlled operation a $150-million contract to construct a 250-megawatt electricity plant in Iraq.
After Rezko was arrested on various corruption charges, Alsammarae posted more than one-third of Rezko's jail bond, putting up surety of his $1.9-million Chicago home and two other properties totaling $2.7 million. He also contributed to Obama, giving the maximum allowable presidential campaign donation of $2,300 during 2008. Obama later decided to give that "tainted" money to charity.
The bipartisan Illinois political mob (or "Illinois Combine") had put a major fundraising operation in place by 2004 to run Blagojevich as their 2008 presidential candidate and were also heavily funding Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. Blago's plans were obviously doomed in 2005, when Rezko was added as a defendant in the pending federal Operation Board Games corruption case.
From that time on, Barack Obama, strongly advocated by power-broker David Axelrod, became their man for the job. But this time, Tony Rezko wasn't there to help. Following a period of solitary confinement in a Chicago lockup, he was reportedly transferred to a secret location somewhere in Wisconsin, where he currently resides. The feds are still keeping him under tight wraps.
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