Rezko’s corruption trial moves forward

Antoin Tony Rezko, a fundraiser and political confidant for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, leaves the federal building in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2006. Nam Y. Huh, The Associated Press

AP

Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a fundraiser and political confidant for Gov. Rod Blagojevich, leaves the federal building in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2006. Nam Y. Huh, The Associated Press

CHICAGO – Businessman Antoin “Tony” Rezko, who raised thousands of dollars for Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, smiled confidently at his wife and family as jury selection began Monday in his heavily spotlighted political corruption trial.

Rezko, 52, is charged with buying political influence with campaign money and using it to launch a multimillion-dollar shakedown scheme aimed at companies hoping to build hospitals or invest state pension money.

The companies allegedly were told to make campaign contributions or payoffs if they wanted their plans approved by key state boards.

Guaranteed to focus attention on the underside of this corruption-plagued state’s politics, the trial also could send shock waves into the presidential race.

U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve, however, asked no political questions Monday morning as she interviewed 26 prospective jurors ranging from a Democratic precinct captain to a woman whose son was convicted of murder.

“Do you know anything about a finder’s fee?” she asked one prospective juror. “Do you have a general understanding of what a finder’s fee is?”

“It happens in business all the time,” the woman said.

Rezko is accused, among other things, of joining forces with millionaire attorney Stuart Levine to pressure a company wanting to invest money for a state teachers pension fund for a $250,000 finder’s fee.

Natty in a well-pressed navy blue suit and white shirt, Rezko smiled broadly and mouthed words to his wife, Rita, who sat with family members in the first row of the courtroom’s spectator benches.

Rezko had looked gloomy at pre-trial hearings where he wore a prison jumpsuit and appeared unshaven and in leg irons. He was not allowed to have a tie in the marshal’s lockup, but on arriving in the courtroom Monday picked out one from a selection provided to him.

While much attention surrounding the trial has focused on Obama’s ties to Rezko, the Democratic presidential contender is actually expected to be mentioned only briefly, if at all, in the proceedings.

Obama did allegedly receive a $10,000 contribution made by a Rezko associate that is mentioned in the indictment, but Obama’s campaign has long since sent the money to charity.

So far this year, Obama has sent $150,000 in Rezko-related contributions to charity. The contributions were to Obama’s Senate campaign and his earlier campaigns for the U.S. House and state Senate.

Chief defense counsel Joseph J. Duffy on Monday scoffed at any speculation he might call Obama as a defense witness.

Rezko has long been a prominent Obama supporter and was involved in the Obama family’s acquisition of a Chicago home three years ago. But Obama has been accused of no wrongdoing in the case.

Blagojevich also has been accused of no wrongdoing, but is expected to be much more of a focus of the evidence in the case. St. Eve disclosed last week that the governor is the anonymous “Public Official A” associated with corruption in court papers filed by federal prosecutors.