Chicago, Illinois — After the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s now-notorious sermons gained a significant amount of national media attention, Illinois Senator Barack Obama felt compelled to explain his relationship with Wright in a major speech on race relations in America. Now that the governor of Illinois has been implicated in the schemes of Obama’s friend Tony Rezko, it might be time for Obama to explain his relationship with Rezko in a major speech on the endemic political corruption that afflicts his home state of Illinois.
Rezko’s trial has lifted the veil on Illinois’s infernally corrupt political establishment, and a government witness named Stuart Levine has taken the part of a meth-snorting, double-dealing Virgil, guiding the public through it. Levine is a broken man, testifying for the government in order to avoid spending the rest of his life in prison. Over seven days of direct examination, he has described an astonishingly broad network of fraud, extortion, and bribery, culminating in Wednesday’s revelation that Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly knew about at least one such scheme.
Levine used his positions on various state boards to steal as much money as he could from people with business before those boards. One of those people was a Hollywood producer and financier named Tom Rosenberg. Rosenberg was a principal at a firm called Capri Capital. Capri managed over a billion dollars for the Illinois Teachers Retirement System, of which Levine was a trustee.
Through a variety of corrupt means, including allowing TRS executive director Jon Bauman to write his own (glowing) evaluations, Levine wielded a disproportionate amount of influence over TRS investment decisions. Levine used this influence to steer TRS contracts to whomever would pay him and his associates the biggest “finder’s fees.” Levine decided that Rosenberg was getting far too much TRS business and paying far too little in the form of kickbacks to him and his cronies — an arrangement that Levine saw an opportunity to amend when Capri sought a new contract from TRS in early 2004.
According to his testimony, Levine and an associate named Bill Cellini (both Republicans) conspired with two of Governor Blagojevich’s top fundraisers and advisers — Tony Rezko and a roofing contractor named Chris Kelly (both Democrats) — to offer Rosenberg a choice: Either pay a $2 million bribe or raise $1.5 million for Blagojevich’s re-election campaign. Rosenberg was to be made to understand that all of his business with TRS was at stake.
Levine testified that Allison Davis, a lawyer friend of Rosenberg’s, was the go-between. Davis allegedly approached Rezko on behalf of Rosenberg to ask about Capri’s business with TRS, and he told Rezko that Rosenberg would be willing to do some fundraising for Blagojevich if that would speed things along. Rezko told Davis that Rosenberg should “call Stuart Levine.”
When Rosenberg realized he was the target of such a massive shakedown, he was furious. In a recorded phone call between Cellini and Levine that prosecutors played for the jury, Cellini quoted Rosenberg’s reaction: “ ‘If [Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly are] going to do this to me and think they’re going to blackmail me, I’m going to take them down.’ ”
Rosenberg’s threat convinced the alleged conspirators to back off, and — in the biggest bombshell to emerge during the trial so far — Levine testified that Rezko told him that Governor Blagojevich had been informed of the situation. Prosecutors also played a recorded conversation between Cellini and Levine that appeared to confirm Levine’s testimony. In it, they discussed how “the big guy” had implied that Rosenberg should not get any further business from the state.
Blagojevich’s office issued a statement last night essentially accusing Levine of “not telling the truth” — an accusation that is by no means baseless. Levine has major credibility problems. For one thing, he is testifying as part of a plea deal. For another, he testified on Monday that his drug of choice from the late ‘80s until his arrest in 2004 was a cocktail of crystal meth and the animal tranquilizer ketamine, known on the street as “Special K.” But much of his testimony is nonetheless backed up by phone conversations that were recorded without his knowledge, in which he was speaking freely and had little incentive to lie.