Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a once-powerful fundraiser who helped propel the career of Sen. Barack Obama, was found guilty Wednesday by a federal...
CHICAGO — Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a once-powerful fundraiser who helped propel the career of Sen. Barack Obama, was found guilty Wednesday by a federal jury of 16 criminal counts, including fraud, money-laundering and bribery in an influence-peddling scheme that touched the top levels of the administration of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Rezko, 52, was acquitted on eight additional charges, including attempted extortion.
He voluntarily surrendered to federal authorities as soon as the verdicts were read. He said through his attorney he wants to begin serving his sentence immediately. Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 3.
While Obama’s friendship with Rezko has been debated on the campaign trail, no evidence surfaced to suggest Obama was involved in any wrongdoing.
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In reaction to the conviction, Obama expressed disappointment. “I’m saddened by today’s verdict,” he said. “This isn’t the Tony Rezko I knew, but now he has been convicted by a jury on multiple charges that once again shine a spotlight on the need for reform.”
During the Democratic primary race, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton repeatedly called attention to Obama’s relationship with Rezko in an effort to raise questions about Obama’s judgment.
About an hour after the verdict was announced, the Republican National Committee began circulating an e-mail, “Rezko: Obama’s Longtime Friend and Money Man” that sought to link the two over a 20-year period.
The verdict was seen as a serious blow to Blagojevich, 51, already damaged by the descriptions of pay-to-play politics that emerged in testimony during the trial, which took more than two months, sometimes involving him directly.
The second-term Democrat, who ran as a reformer, has not been charged, but the trial revolved around the inner workings of his administration. He has denied wrongdoing.
Rezko, a friend and adviser to Blagojevich (bluh-GOY-uh-vich) and one of his top fundraisers, was accused of using his influence to corrupt two state boards in a scheme to collect millions of dollars in kickbacks from businesses that wanted state contracts. Prosecutors described Rezko as “the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings.”
Rezko’s chief lawyer, Joseph Duffy, said he would appeal Wednesday’s decision.
Rezko’s attorneys maintained that the government had little evidence tying him to corruption and that the star witness, Stuart Levine, was not credible because decades of abusing cocaine and crystal methamphetamine had damaged his memory.
Blagojevich’s administration is the target of other federal investigations, and many were left asking whether Rezko’s conviction — he was also found guilty of mail and wire fraud — was a harbinger of more prosecutions.
Blagojevich’s name surfaced repeatedly in the trial. Witnesses told of conversations in which he spoke of or seemed to condone rewarding campaign contributions with jobs.
Obama, whose name rarely came up during the trial, has been criticized for his involvement with Rezko in property transactions related to his home.
As Obama was buying his house in 2005, Rezko’s wife, Rita, bought an adjacent empty lot. She later sold part of it to the Obamas that enabled them to expand their yard. Obama has since called the transactions “boneheaded.”
According to Obama’s campaign, Rezko may have raised up to $250,000 for him over the years. The campaign donated $159,085 in contributions from Rezko, his family and associates to charity, the amount the campaign says can be “reasonably credited to Rezko’s political support.”
Rezko was one of Blagojevich’s top fundraisers, bringing his campaign more than $1.4 million from 2001 to 2004, according to federal authorities.
Prosecutors said Rezko used his clout to benefit himself and his friends at the expense of the people of Illinois.
He agreed to a plan to steer teacher pension investments to firms that would provide kickbacks, and he pushed a health board to approve a new hospital so he could get a cut from a contractor’s bribe, they said.
Taken together, prosecutors said, Rezko stood to gain at least $3.9 million.
Patrick Fitzgerald, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, said he was gratified by the verdict, calling the jury system “the best antidote to the poison of corruption and dishonest government.”
Material from The Washington Post and Chicago Tribune is included in this report.