May 24, 2008 Evelyn Pringle
The first case of many to go to trial resulting from the Operation Board Game investigation is being referred to as the "biggest political corruption trial" since former Illinois Governor George Ryan's trial two years ago, in the Chicago media.
In this case, the Syrian-born immigrant, Tony Rezko, is facing 24 total counts of wire and mail fraud, aiding and abetting a solicitation of bribery, money laundering and attempted extortion. Rezko supported Republican George Ryan in his campaign for Governor.
The former Governor began serving a 6-year-plus prison sentence in November 2007, for charges that included racketeering, bribery, extortion, money laundering and tax fraud. On April 17, 2006, US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, told the New York Times the verdict was gratifying but the widespread corruption was "disturbing."
"Mr. Ryan steered contracts worth millions of dollars to friends and took payments and vacations in return," Fitzgerald said. "When he was a sitting governor, he lied to the FBI about this conduct and then he went out and did it again."
In 2002, Rezko backed Rod Blagojevich for Governor. Back on January 12, 2005, the Chicago Tribune reported that Blagojevich had collected more than $36.4 million in donations in four years. By comparison, it took former Governor Ryan, "once considered a powerful fundraiser, 30 years in public life to raise $40 million," the report said.
Until Ryan left, Republicans held the governor's office for nearly 30 years. Democrat Blagojevich took office in January 2003, and between then and when the same US attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, intervened on May 20, 2004, a plan was put in place to bilk roughly $8 million from persons and firms seeking to do business with the state of Illinois.
As discussed previously in this series, Governor Blagojevich was supposed to be the presidential candidate in 2008, not Obama.
In her opening statement in the Rezko trial on March 6, 2008, Assistant US attorney, Carrie Hamilton, pointed out that thousands of teachers and hospital patients across the state could have been harmed by the rigging of decisions of state boards that invested teacher pension funds and approved hospital expansion projects.
The trial ended May 13, 2008 and the jury is deliberating. Assistant US Attorney, Reid Schar, delivered the closing argument for the government. Attorney, Joseph Duffy, argued on behalf of Rezko, and Assistant US Attorney Christopher Niewoehner delivered the rebuttal.
The leader of the Board Game investigation, Fitzgerald, sat in court in the front row listening as Schar recounted testimony from witness, Ali Ata, who said Rezko told him, "Do not cooperate with the government, don't worry, the top federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, will be replaced."
Ata entered a guilty plea in another Rezko fraud case a week before the trial was set to end and agreed to testify as part of a plea agreement. During his testimony, Ata told the jury he spoke with Rezko as late as 2006, and Rezko told him "the plan will turn out just fine once the new U.S. Attorney gets into office."
"This is a crime that involves the highest levels of power in Illinois," Assistant US attorney, Niewoehner told the jury in closing arguments.
This was a crime that had an impact on where hospitals would be built and where billions in retirement money for the state's teachers would be placed, the prosecutor said.
This case "is about the defendant's, Tony Rezko's, corrupt use of his power and influence to benefit himself and his friends over the people of Illinois," Assistant US attorney, Schar told the jury.
Rezko was an insider who schemed to corrupt public officials for personal gain, he said. Throughout the trial, prosecutors referred to public "officials," as plural.
Schar said Rezko's ability to raise funds for Blagojevich bought him "access and clout" which he used to launch his scheme. Rezko was just one player, albeit an important one, in a network of corruption deeply rooted in Springfield and Chicago, according to Schar.
"He became part of a corrupt ring of individuals — a corrupt scheme that existed in the State of Illinois," Schar said. "He joined the corrupt scheme, he acted in furtherance of it and he did it for money."
There was no mystery about how Rezko gained control over the Teacher's Retirement System board and the Health Facilities Planning Board to pressure companies and individuals hoping to get state business for kickbacks, Schar told the jury.
"The answer to that question is access and clout and it stems from Rezko's ability to raise a lot of money," Schar said. "He is one of the top fundraisers for Gov. Rod Blagojevich," he noted.
Rezko gained power over the Planning Board by stacking it with members whose vote he could control, Schar said. The chairman was reappointed after delivering a $1,000 contribution to Rezko for Blagojevich and two others contributed $25,000 before getting appointed.
Rezko could not set up the schemes
Tony Rezko is a private citizen. Therefore, the evidence presented in the trial focused on his influence over officials in getting members appointed to the Boards. Prosecutors did not discuss how the legislation got passed that enabled the Planning Board to be set up in a way that allowed for the appointment of members to rig the votes to begin with.
That part of the scheme will likely be detailed in future indictments, probably starting with Blagojevich. Blagojevich signed the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Act with an effective date of June 27, 2003. However, before he could sign the act, a bill had to be passed by the Illinois House and Senate. As discussed fully in Curtain Time Part II, Obama was the inside guy in the senate who pushed through the legislation that resulted in the Act.
Obama was appointed chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The minute the bill was introduced, it was referred to his committee for review. The sponsors of the bill also served on this committee with Obama. Within a month, Chairman Obama sent word to the full senate that the legislation should be passed.
On May 31, 2003, Senate Bill 1332 passed and specified that the “Board shall be appointed by the Governor, with the advice and consent of the Senate." The legislation reduced the number of members from 15 to 9, paving the way for the appointment of a five-bloc majority to rig the votes.
The corrupt members appointed included three doctors who contributed to Obama. Michel Malek gave Obama $10,000 on June 30, 2003 and donated $25,000 to Blagojevich on July 25, 2003. Malek also gave Obama another $500 in September 2003.
Fortunee Massuda donated $25,000 to Blagojevich on July 25, 2003, and gave a total of $2,000 to Obama on different dates. After he was appointed, Dr Imad Almanaseer contributed a total of $3,000 to Obama. Almanaseer did not give money to Blagojevich.
When the first pay-to-play scheme was put in play, and the application for approval of a new hospital was submitted, the Department of Human Services, along with four other Illinois agencies, sent recommendations that the project should be approved even though experts said the hospital was not needed.
During the trial, Rezko’s attorney presented an email exchange to the jury that hinted at Obama's role in setting up the scheme. The exchange showed that Obama and seven other top Illinois politicians consulted on the legislation passed in 2003 and were involved in recommending the members for the board.
Matthew Pickering wrote the memo to Blagojevich’s general counsel, Susan Lichtenstein, on behalf of David Wilhelm, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who headed Blagojevich's 2002 campaign for governor.
Pickering said he and Wilhelm had “worked closely” over six months with state legislators. The memo recommended the appointees listed above and stated, “our attached recommendations reflect that involvement” with the political leaders.
The persons appointed to rig the votes, including those who contributed to Blagojevich and Obama, are cooperating in exchange for immunity or lighter prison sentences.
Feds shut down pay-to-play schemes
Only two pay-to-play schemes succeeded before the Feds swooped in and shut them all down. Blagojevich did not receive the $1.5 million from the Planning Board deal because the hospital was never built.
But Obama received $20,000 from the first kickback paid in the pension fund scheme and the straw donors used to funnel the $10,000 payments, Elie Maloof and Joseph Aramanda, also made $1,000 contributions to Obama's failed run for Congress in 2000.
In addition, Aramanda gave $500 to Obama's senate campaign on June 30, 2003. In the summer of 2005, Aramanda's son landed an intern position in Obama's Washington office.
Obama also received contributions for his senate campaign from the two persons appointed to rig the vote on the pension fund board. On June 30, 2003, Jack Carriglio contributed $1,000, and the other appointee, Anthony Abboud, donated $500 on June 30, 2003, $250 on March 5, 2004, and $1,000 on June 25, 2004.
The person chosen to funnel the kickback in a future scheme, Michael Winter, donated $3,000 to Obama on June 30, 2003.
All these people are also cooperating in exchange for immunity or lesser prison sentences but prosecutors pointed out during closing arguments that people who entered into agreements with the government are required to tell the truth or all deals are off.
Obama's political Godfather
During the Rezko trial the jury saw an exhibit that credited Rezko with raising $1.44 million for Blagojevich.
In his closing argument, Rezko's attorney, Joe Duffy, told the jury: "The evidence shows Rezko spent more time in 2003-2004 fundraising for St Jude's Children's Hospital, George W Bush and Barack Obama, then he did for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich."
During his opening statement in the trial, Duffy also pointed out that Rezko had raised money for many politicians and specifically named Obama.
The fact is, in addition to being his real estate fairy for the $2 million mansion, Rezko is Obama's political Godfather. His career in politics was launched on July 31, 1995, with contributions of $2,000 from Rezko for the Illinois senate campaign. Obama only raised about $100,000 for that race, with roughly $15,000 coming from Rezko.
After Rezko was indicted in October 2006, Obama claimed Rezko only raised $50,000 or $60,000 over his political career. This is the story he gave in the media for more than a year. But the total amount revealed during interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune on March 14, 2008, added up to a quarter million.
Several of the people who led Obama's corrupt finance committee for the US senate race with Rezko, and collected all the contributions from the people involved in the pay-to-pay schemes, are now running the show for his presidential campaign.
For reasons discussed in Parts I through V of Curtain Time, Obama's downfall will be what he claims was a "boneheaded" mistake in entering into real estate deal with Rezko in June 2005, less than a month after Rezko received a $3.5 million loan from the Iraqi-born billionaire, Nadhmi Auchi, who ended up with Riverside Park, a $2.5 billion 62-acre development project in Chicago.
However, judging from the indictments in Board Games unsealed so far, Obama's legal culpability at this point anyways, stems from his involvement in setting up and receiving money from the pay-to-play schemes.