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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Deal or no deal?

On Wednesday, Antoin “Tony” Rezko was convicted in Chicago of 16 of the 24 counts he was charged with, including wire fraud and money laundering. Rezco was a prominent fundraiser for Illinois senator Barack Obama and governor Rod Blagojevich. Obama, whose relationship with Rezko dates back to 1990, was also involved in a personal real estate deal with Rezko in 2005, when Rezko was already under federal investigation. Obama has characterized his involvement in this deal as “boneheaded.” Republicans wasted no time in exploiting the news of the conviction by sending an email questioning Obama’s judgment to reporters.

Rezco’s sentencing is scheduled for September 3. However, rather than asking the trial judge for a continuation of his release on bail pending sentence, he immediately surrendered and entered federal custody while he is awaiting sentence. His attorney stated that Rezco wanted to begin his sentence without delay. Even though Rezco was found not guilty of eight counts, including extortion, under federal sentencing law the judge may increase a sentence by considering acquitted conduct. Thus Rezco is facing many, many years in prison. Meanwhile, the government’s star witness against Rezko, self-admitted political fixer Stuart Levine, is likely to receive only a little over five years under the terms of his plea agreement, rather than the possible life sentence he was facing before he decided to cooperate with the government. This is not unusual. Prosecutors turn witnesses in all kinds of cases, and they get sweet deals for spilling the beans.

There is now speculation that with the heat turned up to a boil on Rezko, he’ll also strike a deal and squeal, engulfing Senator Obama in the kind of controversy that could jeopardize his run for the White House. This is highly unlikely. First, why would Rezko launch himself into the big house if he thought he could serve up Barak Obama on a silver platter? He’d have his lawyer get him bail, set up a meeting with the prosecutors, and start snitching. Second, the prospect of getting a cooperation deal after you’ve made the government convict you is far more difficult than auditioning for Team America prior to seating a jury of twelve to decide your fate.

Pat Fitzgerald, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago, is no shrinking violet. He’s a former Manhattan federal prosecutor whom I’ve squared off against. He zealously prosecuted and convicted Scooter Libby and would not hesitate to go after Obama if the goods were there. I don’t think Rezko has anything other than superficially embarrassing things on Obama; otherwise, he’d have played those cards already. Moreover, why volunteer to be a caged stool pigeon when you could be free and give Chicago yet another marquee trial? The bonehead is not Obama but Rezko, for risking trial without a real safety net. CR

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