Opening statements being in trial of political fundraiser Rezko

CHICAGO – Federal prosecutors focused a spotlight on the underside of Illinois politics Thursday, telling jurors that a prolific fundraiser who lavished donations on Sen. Barack Obama and others peddled his clout to corrupt state government.

Antoin “Tony” Rezko, 52, who doled out campaign money to Obama, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and many other Illinois politicians, is accused of engineering a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme with a member of two state boards.

“(It’s) a system built on a foundation of public trust, trust in a very small group of people to make a decision for the greater good,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie E. Hamilton said in the government’s opening statement. “This is a case about the violation of that trust.”

Blagojevich’s name came up less than five minutes into Hamilton’s statement, which highlighted hefty financial contributions to the Democratic governor’s campaign and Rezko’s apparent influence on state board appointments.

“The administration took his recommendations very seriously and more often than not, if he gave them a name, they wound up on a state board,” Hamilton said.

Prosecutors say Rezko’s alleged scheme called on companies hoping to invest state teachers pension money or build hospital expansions to make kickbacks or contributions to the Blagojevich campaign or see their plans shelved.

Neither Blagojevich nor Obama has been charged with wrongdoing, and the presidential hopeful’s name is expected to be mentioned only briefly if at all at the trial expected to take three to four months.

Blagojevich, however, is guaranteed to suffer an embarrassing black eye.

Rezko freely admits his role as one of the most prominent political fundraisers in the state. But he firmly denies taking part in any scheme to shake down companies seeking to do business with Illinois.

Prosecutors, however, say he joined with millionaire attorney Stuart Levine to operate just such a scheme. Levine sat on two key state boards – one governing which firms invested teachers’ pension money and the other deciding which hospitals could proceed with expansion plans.

Prosecutors say Rezko supplied the clout to make the plan work.

Levine has pleaded guilty and is expected to be the star witness as federal prosecutors build their case.

Once Hamilton wrapped up her opening statement, chief defense counsel Joseph J. Duffy, a former federal prosecutor, was due to deliver an opening statement on Rezko’s behalf.

Associated Press Writer Ashley M. Heher contributed to this report.