As Democratic Presidential frontrunner Barack Obama heads into two crucial big-state primaries that could seal his hold on the nomination, serious questions remain unanswered about his relationship with a Syrian-born Chicago businessman and political fixer targeted by the federal government for corruption, extortion and money laundering.
Even as he claims to represent change and campaigns as an alternative to “business as usual” politics, Obama cannot escape the fact that he is a product of old-style, corrupt Chicago politics.
Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, an Illinois watchdog group, points to Obama’s longtime relationship with Tony Rezko, a Chicago real estate developer, fast-buck operator and backroom political kingmaker.
Obama’s close ties to Rezko raises questions over whether or not the Democrat is really a reformer.
We have a sick political culture and that’s the environment that Barack Obama came from. This wasn’t just some guy who wrote a check once for Barack Obama, it’s someone who was an early supporter and had a personal relationship with Sen. Obama for quite some time. Tony Rezko is all that is wrong with the old kind of politics or any kind of politics.
Political opponents, led by operatives for the faltering campaign of Sen. Hillary Clinton, have tried for months to turn Obama’s friendship with Resko into political campaign fodder but the story has lacked legs outside of Chicago.
That may be changing. Reports The Associated Press:
Only three months after former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was locked up in a federal prison camp, a new corruption case that already has dragged his successor and Barack Obama into an embarrassing spotlight is going to trial.
Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago businessman described by Hillary Rodham Clinton in a nationally televised debate as a “slum landlord” represented by Obama, is charged with using political clout to run a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme.
It’s a scheme that prosecutors say was rife with sneaky deals and strong-arm tactics, all aimed at landing millions of dollars in bogus fees from firms hoping to handle investments from a teachers’ pension fund and obscure state boards.
Rezko, one of the top fundraisers for Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is charged with money laundering, attempted extortion, fraud and aiding bribery.
Blagojevich has not been charged with wrongdoing. But two members of his inner circle are under indictment and U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve has publicly outed the governor as the anonymous “Public Official A” who appears in court papers as a beneficiary of the alleged scheme.
The former head of the Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign fund is expected to be the government’s leadoff witness after jury selection, which begins Monday in what is expected to be a three-month trial.
Even in a state with a traditionally tolerant view of political boondoggling, there is amazement at the charges of high-level corruption so soon after Ryan and his administration collapsed in a sea of scandal. He’s serving a 61?2-year term.
“It’s stunning to me that this trial is being held at all in light of what happened to George Ryan,” said Jay Stewart, head of Chicago’s Better Government Association.
It all centers on Rezko, 52, a Syrian-born real-estate developer and fast-food tycoon who once raised thousands of dollars for both Blagojevich and Obama – much to the chagrin of both.
Sources within the Republican National Committee say presumptive GOP nominee John McCain plans to use Obama’s connection with Rezko against him if the Chicago Democrat wins the nomination. Republicans, the sources say, will try to portray Obama as bought and paid for not only by organized crime in Chicago but also by Syrians and other Arab interests.
“If Obama wins the nomination he will be portrayed as a pawn of the Arabs to gain control of the United States government,” says one well-placed Republican campaign operative. “It will be an effective message aimed at stoking American fears.”
But others in the GOP worry the plan could backfire because Republicans have also been linked to Rezko’s shady dealings.
Writes John Kass in The Chicago Tribune:
The Republican Party should be eagerly lining up for this week’s federal corruption trial in Chicago of Barack Obama’s personal real estate fairy, Tony Rezko, the way a baseball team lines up to smack fat fastballs from a tired pitcher.
But the Republicans aren’t swinging. They’re keeping their bats on their shoulders. This should concern Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who will likely face Sen. Obama (D-Rezko/Daley). As most Clinton operatives and Republicans know, Rezko is the indicted political fixer who helped Obama buy his dream house.
The sellers split the parcel in two, one a vacant lot and one with a home. Obama got a $300,000 discount on the house. The Rezkos paid the full asking price for the lot next door. Obama, who keeps insisting he’s told us everything, until something new comes out, admitted recently that he toured the home with Tony before that magical sale. So the real estate fairy sprinkles the magic fairy dust on the Obama dream home. Obama becomes the reform candidate for president, to change American politics as we know it — except of course in Chicago, where the Daley Machine runs things.
With Rezko’s jury being selected, you might think Republicans would feel some excitement running down their legs, the way liberal pundits tingle with Obamamania, or the way teenage girls respond to photographs of Justin Timberlake. Instead the Republicans are subdued. As I’ve warned before, the Rezko trial isn’t about Obama. It is about Rezko and some Democrats, like Gov. Rod “The Unreformer” Blagojevich. But it also involves Rezko and powerful Illinois Republicans with national reach.
Obama now calls his involvement with Rezko a “bone-headed mistake.” Republicans in Illinois are now scrambling to cover their butts as evidence surfaces about shady deals with Rezko. Many are worried about what one of the government’s key witness, former GOP power broker Stuart Levine, will reveal on the stand.
Levine isn’t the only Republican implicated in Operation Board Games. There’s “Co-Schemer A” — Illinois Republican boss Big Bill Cellini. He’s the Republican asphalt king, casino magnate and recipient of millions of tax dollars to finance his hotel deals and other projects, like multiple partnerships with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s favorite developer, Michael Marchese. And you thought only Chicago Democrats got fat on public money?
Cellini has not been indicted, but he has been implicated in a scheme to shake down an investment banker with Hollywood connections, and now Cellini has retained one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the state.
Also mentioned is Cellini’s plump handmaiden, also known as “Individual K” in the case’s court documents, none other than Big Bob Kjellander (pronounced $hell-ander).
Kjellander, a friend of former White House adviser Karl Rove, remains a Republican National Committee bigshot who is planning the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis in September.
The BGA’s Stewart says Obama shows a double standard when he rails against corruption on the campaign trail but ignores it in his home state of Illinois. After Obama, speaking at a campaign rally in Ohio, said “if you are ready for change, then we can go ahead and tell the lobbyists and the fat cats that their days are over,” Stewart told ABC News and other news outlets:
That’s a noble version he is describing. He is not talking about Illinois when he does that. I don’t begrudge him for speaking out on it (corruption) in Washington or Kenya. If it’s appropriate, you should say it. To say it’s appropriate in Illinois is a huge understatement.
The Obama campaign did not return phone calls or answer emails requesting comments on these issues.