Who helped Barack Obama avoid the taint of Chicago corruption?

How did Barack Obama emerge from Chicago in 2008 untainted by political corruption?

His rise to power began at the 2004 Democratic Party Convention when Illinois State Senator Barack Obama was catapulted onto the national stage by the alluring force of his oratory.

Four years later, in December 2008, Rod Blagojevich, the fourth governor in recent Illinois history to be imprisoned, was arrested by the F.B.I. culminating a long investigation led by the U.S. Attorney (USA) in Chicago.  “Blago’s” arrest came just as he was about to meet with someone to negotiate a bribe in exchange for appointing then-U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. to complete President Obama’s senatorial term. 

On the day Blago was arrested, the agent in charge of the Chicago F.B.I. Office said, “If [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it is certainly one hell of a competitor.”

Jackson, Co-Chair of President-Elect Obama’s campaign, was later arrested, along with his wife, and sentenced, in August 2013, to 30 months in jail for stealing $750,000 from his own campaign fund.

One year before Obama was inaugurated President, Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a key fundraiser for both Obama and Blagojevich, and one of three core members of Obama’s 2004 senatorial campaign finance committee, was arrested by F.B.I. agents acting on evidence gathered by the USA in Chicago. Three years later, Rezko was sentenced to 10.5 years in prison. 

There’s no need here to rehash Rezko’s and Blago’s criminal transgressions in detail, or document the many Illinois politicians, from both major parties, who, over the years, traded their business suits for jump suits. It is common knowledge that Chicago is the center of political corruption in a widely corrupt state.

Yet, somehow, the 44th President of the United States emerged from that toxic cauldron called “Crook County” untainted by the maelstrom of high-profile corruption cases that engulfed several of his closest, political associates. The question is…

How did that happen?

Was he an example of sharing no guilt by mere association – a petunia in an onion patch? 

Was he blessed by divine intervention, or dumb luck? 

Or did others, positioned in the Department of Justice to help him, plot a course that safely navigated him through the fraudulent waters of Chicagoland political corruption, thereby enabling him to cruise untarnished into the White House?

If such a route from Chicago to Washington, D.C. was prepared for Barack Obama, it was done by more than one official of the Department of Justice (DoJ).  And, it was accomplished with the coerced assistance of, at least, three F.B.I. moles that helped the Bureau build cases against Blago and Rezko – cases that would not implicate the man who would be President.

What follows is the story of one of those moles: Bernard Barton; also known as John Thomas.  

Much of the information herein is distilled from multiple Chicago media sources – most often the Chicago Sun Times and Chicago Tribune.  Those outlets, plus a few lesser known Chicago business news sources, published bits-and-pieces of the Barton-Thomas story as it unfolded.  But they, collectively, fell short of providing a comprehensive overview of his role as a mole for the F.B.I.

Bernard Barton’s transition to John Thomas began in the late 1990’s  when investigators in the USA’s Long Island office in the Eastern District of New York caught Barton and a partner defrauding customers of their billboard leasing company by charging them $350,000 in rental fees for billboard space. It was fraud; they never intended to deliver on their contractual obligations. Barton also charged $140,000 on an American Express card using his father’s Social Security number.

To avoid a 15-20 months jail sentence, Barton agreed to help federal prosecutors gather evidence against organized crime families trying to penetrate the billboard business in New York. 

Barton apparently did that job well because his adjudication was delayed – for what would total about a decade.

As he awaited his eventual fate before a federal judge, there was more DoJ undercover work awaiting him in Illinois.  

In 2000, he moved to Chicago, legally changed his name to John Thomas (to avoid recognition as the federal billboard mole?), and opened a real estate brokerage, plus another billboard company. 

Bernard Barton, aka John Thomas (photo credit: Chicago Tribune)

On its face, it looks like the DoJ set him up there to aid an on-going investigation conducted by the USA for the Northern District of Illinois, Patrick Fitzgerald, targeting corrupt Chicagoland pols. Among those targets was Rod Blagojevich – former U.S. Representative (Il 5th Dist., 1997-2003) and later Governor of Illinois (2003-2009). The feds maintained their leverage over Barton-Thomas by delaying adjudication of charges against him back in New York.

He was a fish hopelessly hooked on the line, but not yet reeled into the courthouse boat.  

Sometime between 2000 and October 2003, according to a May 4, 2007 article by Thomas A. Corfman entitled “Real estate exec plays mole in Fed probe” posted in a Crain’s Chicago Business real estate site, Burton-Thomas became a confidential informant (C.I.) for the USA in Chicago. This was confirmed in an announcement from the Long Island office of the Eastern District of New York.

 “Federal prosecutors in Long Island disclosed Mr. Thomas’s cooperation in October 2003, when Mr. Thomas entered his guilty plea in New York. ‘We just want to put on the record that the defendant has approached the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to cooperate with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago,’ an assistant U.S. attorney said, according to an Oct. 27, 2003, transcript of the hearing in New York.

And in an unusual move, prosecutors asked for a court order allowing Mr. Thomas to commit crimes during the investigation, a tell-tale sign that Mr. Thomas was part of an undercover ‘sting operation’. The court granted the request.

‘It is contemplated that in connection with his work with law enforcement, Barton may be asked to engage in criminal activity, that is, activity that may violate a federal, state and/or local criminal law…but that is undertaken with the prior knowledge and consent of federal law enforcement…for purposes of furthering the ongoing grand jury investigation’ in Chicago according to a document filed by prosecutors in New York on October 29, 2003.’”

The assertion from the USA’s Long Island office for the Eastern District of New York that Barton-Thomas “approached the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago to cooperate with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago” is, at least, odd.  At most, the notion that he volunteered to be a mole is incredible. It’s more plausible that he didn’t have a choice whether to “cooperate” or not with the Chicago USA’s “sting operation.”

According to a May 5, 2007 article by Chicago Tribune staff reporter David Jackson, in 2004 Barton was convicted of the fraud charges originating in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York from the late 1990’s.  But his sentencing was delayed – for six more years.

Burton-Thomas is now in the boat, but with an uncertain fate. Leverage over him remains in place.  Does he go in the frying pan, or back into the lake?

In his article cited above, Jackson also reported:

“When a Tribune reporter discovered that Thomas was acting as a federal operative in May 2006, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald took the unusual step of asking senior editors at the paper to refrain from publishing a report that would expose the ongoing probe. Fitzgerald offered no specifics but said an article would derail an important investigation and put people in serious danger of harm.”

So who were “the people” put “in serious danger,” from whom, and why?

On February 10, 2010, David Roeder of the Chicago Sun Times reported:

Thomas wouldn't discuss details of his work for the FBI. But sources said that, for more than two years when he was giving information to agents, Thomas provided a fly-on-the-wall look inside Rezko's real estate operations and his desperate attempts to keep his projects afloat. Sources said Thomas also logged frequent visits to Rezko from Gov. Blagojevich and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.). [bolded in the original] Blagojevich and Obama were among the many politicians for whom Rezko raised campaign cash. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.  Thomas had good reason to help. He hopes to get probation for his own felony fraud conviction in a New York case. And he said he wants to redeem himself in the eyes of business associates and his family. Sources said Thomas helped investigators build a record of repeat visits to the old offices of Rezko and former business partner Daniel Mahru's Rezmar Corp., at 853 N. Elston, by Blagojevich and Obama during 2004 and 2005.

 According to Roeder,

“Both politicians relied on Rezko for fund-raising connections. Obama was in the thick of his successful run for the U.S. Senate in 2004. Now in the glare of a presidential campaign, Obama has donated to charity $157,835 from contributions to his Senate campaign that he has linked to Rezko.”

During his (March 2008) candidate interview with the Sun Times editorial staff, Presidential Candidate Obama denied having made frequent visits to Rezko’s office during the 2004-2005 timeframe.

Here’s the relevant excerpt from that interview:

Q. In November 2006, you and your campaign exchanged with us written interrogatories. So a lot of the quotes I will give you just come out of those. The campaign said that you probably had lunch with Rezko once or twice a year. You sort of added four or five times, something like that.  John Thomas is an FBI mole.  He recently told us that he saw you coming and going from Rezko’s office a lot. And three other sources told us that your and Rezko spoke on the phone daily. Is that true?

A. No. That’s not accurate. I think what is true is that, it depends on the period of time. I knew him for…I’m just trying to do the math here.  I’ve known him for 17 years. There were stretches of time where I would see him once or twice a year.  But as I said when he was involved in finance committee for the U.S. Senate race, or the state senate races, or the U.S. Congressional race, then he was an active member.  And there’s no doubt there were much more intensive discussion at that point. During the U.S. Senate race, there’s be [sic] stretches of like a couple of weeks – for example prior to him organizing the fundraiser that he did for us – where I would probably be talking to him once a day to make sure that was going well. But the typical relationship was one that was fond.  We would see each other. But there would be no reason for me to be seeing him that often. 

Why would Barton-Thomas misrepresent the truth about the frequency of Obama’s visit to Rezko, knowing that conversations he witnessed in Rezko’s office were recorded? Another federal mole was working fulltime in Rezko’s real estate office at the time. He, too, was wired. A third wired mole had an on-going outside business relationship with Rezko. Compartmentalization of assets would have required that each would not know the roles of the other two.   

Barton-Thomas did not testify in Tony Rezko’s or Rod Blagojevich’s trial.  And, not one word of any of his recorded transcripts was ever made public. 

Was that because the information wasn’t needed, or because it would have broadened the scope of the investigation beyond its intent, and perhaps included Obama?

Neither of the other two Rezko moles testified in Rezko’s or Blagojevich’s trial, nor was a single word from their clandestine recordings ever made public. Both were, like Burton-Thomas, awaiting long-delayed sentencing.

Finally, in June 2010, Barton-Thomas was sentenced to three years probation for his New York crimes dating back to the late 1990’s. 

It was a case of catch-use-release as the fish was thrown back into the lake. But, later, he got caught swimming in illegal waters again.  In 2015, Thomas was sentenced to 5 years in prison for a subsequent crime unrelated to his earlier misdeeds in New York.  

DoJ officials with direct knowledge of the Burton-Thomas mole would have included Patrick Fitzgerald and senior officials in the USA’s Long Island office of the Eastern District of New York.  The New York list would have included a now-familiar name, Loretta Lynch.

From 1994-1999, Loretta Lynch was Chief of the Long Island Office and then top assistant to U.S. Attorney Zachary Carter (1993-1999). In 1999, President Clinton appointed Lynch USA for the Eastern District of New York. Today, she is the Attorney General of the United States, having been nominated by President Obama.

Among others likely to have had indirect knowledge of an investigation into a U.S. Representative who became the Illinois Governor, would have been James B. Comey, U.S. Deputy Attorney General from 2003-2005. Today he is Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a long-time close friend of Patrick Fitzgerald, who is godfather to one of his children. 

All this does not definitively answer the initial question:  How did Barack Obama emerge from Chicago untainted by political corruption? 

But it does suggest one plausible explanation: He had help.

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