Chicago, Ill. – After a brief session Friday morning, the judge presiding over the trial of Illinois businessman Tony Rezko dismissed the jury for the weekend. I’ve been here covering the trial since Monday, and what follows is a digest of what turned out to be a very interesting week.
Monday: A sleazy political operative named Stuart Levine testified that he, Rezko, and others conspired in 2003 to convince Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich to block a proposed consolidation of three state pension funds. This consolidation would have saved the taxpayers money, but it also would have cost Levine his position as a trustee for one of the funds — a position he was using corruptly to make money for himself. Rezko was one of Blagojevich’s top fundraisers. Levine informed Rezko that if he could convince the governor to block the consolidation, Levine would use his public office to help Rezko reward campaign contributors. The consolidation never occurred.
Tuesday: Levine testified about a scheme to split a $500,000 kickback with Rezko. Levine arranged for Rezko’s $250,000 to be paid to one of Rezko’s associates, a businessman named Joseph Aramanda. Prosecutors say Aramanda used the money at Rezko’s command. Just days after the money was deposited into Aramanda’s bank account, Aramanda wrote a $10,000 check to Barack Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign. Obama, who has denied any knowledge of the scheme, donated these and other Rezko-related funds to charity.
Wednesday: Levine testified that Rezko told Gov. Blagojevich about a Rezko-Levine plot to extort money from a businessman. Rezko allegedly alerted the governor after this businessman — a financier named Tom Rosenberg — threatened to tell the feds about the plot. Prosecutors played a recorded phone call in which Levine and an alleged co-conspirator named Bill Cellini discussed a meeting in which Rezko informed Levine that “the big guy” had been made aware of the situation and had agreed with Rezko’s proposed course of action: to back off from the extortion plot but also to deny Rosenberg any more state contracts. On the phone call, Cellini said Rezko told him the same thing.
Thursday: Rezko’s defense attorney, Joseph Duffy, attacked Levine’s credibility by interrogating him about his sordid history of criminality and deceit. Levine admitted to being involved in criminal activity for his entire adult life, including multiple instances of bribery, fraud, and extortion, and the near-constant abuse of a wide range of illegal drugs. Perhaps most damaging to Levine’s credibility, however, was his admission to Duffy, during a prolonged exchange, that he had lied to prosecutors even after he agreed to cooperate with them, thus demonstrating a willingness to commit perjury as recently as two years ago.
That brings us to today, which was relatively uneventful. Levine is clearly an unreliable witness. But the government has played numerous recorded phone calls in which Levine discussed his schemes with co-conspirators in situations where it would make little sense for him to lie.
If you’re following the trial in the weeks ahead, keep an eye out for Tom Rosenberg, who is scheduled to testify about the alleged extortion plot against him. His testimony will be much more credible than Levine’s, although he doesn’t know as much as Levine about the details of Rezko’s involvement. In any case, it should be interesting to hear what Rosenberg has to say.
Since Obama wasn’t involved in the serious wrongdoings for which Rezko is on trial, his name will continue to play only a minimal role in the proceedings. But he might suffer collateral damage if the trial continues to expose the grimy underpinnings of the corrupt political structure from which he came.
Obama has spoken often about the need to clean up Washington. But he hails from one of the country’s dirtiest governments, where at times he either endorsed for high office or did business with some of its dirtiest players. To the extent that this trial reminds people of that fact, every news story it generates will be bad news for Obama.