Illinois experiences a collective sense of déjà vu
Charles N. Wheeler III
It's déjà vu all over again. Illinoisans can be forgiven if Yogi Berra's celebrated observation comes to mind as the public corruption trial draws near of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, formerly one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's top fundraisers and key advisers.
Rezko was indicted in October 2006 on 24 counts of using his insider role to extort kickbacks and campaign contributions in return for state contracts and investment business, as part of Operation Board Games, a federal investigation into corruption involving state regulatory and investment panels.
The Wilmette developer and businessman has maintained his innocence and is scheduled to go to trial February 25 in U.S. District Court in Chicago.
When the indictment was announced, less than a month before the gubernatorial election, Blagojevich said he was praying that the charges were not true, but added, "If in fact these allegations relating to Tony are true, he betrayed my trust, he lied to me, he deceived me, but even more important than that, he betrayed the public trust."
In a bombshell filing just before Christmas, though, federal prosecutors suggested for the first time that the governor was aware of Rezko's schemes all along, and in fact volunteered pay-to-play suggestions of his own.
The 78-page document, called a Santiago proffer, laid out major elements of the federal government's case against Rezko, including separate conversations between two political insiders already convicted of corruption charges — attorney Joseph Cari and businessman Stuart Levine — and "Public Official A," widely identified as the governor.
Speaking with Cari, "Public Official A stated that he had a lot of ways of helping his friends and that Rezko and Co-Schemer B were his point people in helping his friends and coordinating fundraising," the document said. "Public Official A also informed Cari that he could award contracts, legal work and investment banking to help with fundraising." Co-Schemer B has been identified as Blagojevich fundraiser Christopher Kelly, under indictment on unrelated federal tax evasion charges.
On another occasion, the document said, Levine thanked Public Official A for reappointing him to a state medical facilities planning board, which enabled him to shake down hospitals and other interests needing board approval. "Public Official A responded that Levine should only talk with Tony or [Co-Schemer B] about the board," according to the document, then added, "You stick with us and you will do very well for yourself." Blagojevich steadfastly has maintained that he is not Public Official A, and last month he denied the alleged conversations ever took place. The governor also berated reporters for pressing him about the allegations, which he said were "tangential" to pressing public policy issues.
"The reality is, they like to sell newspapers," he said. "They're not interested in concrete solutions to problems for people. They just like controversy and tangents that have no relevance to the quality of life for people."
Much as the governor would like Illinoisans to ignore the federal noose drawing closer around his neck, one might argue that the coming indictment of the state's chief executive is quite relevant to the quality of life for people.
Whoa! What indictment? Isn't that jumping the gun a bit? Not really. Rather, it's a simple matter of following the Rezko proffer to its logical conclusion.
In essence, what federal prosecutors are showing the court in the document is the chain of evidence they intend to use to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the criminal offenses they allege actually occurred. The links in the chain include the Cari and Levine conversations with Public Official A in which illegal activities were discussed. Under federal case law, Public Official A is a party to the scheme, equally culpable as the other participants. Thus, prosecutors appear duty bound to indict Public Official A, who they allege in the filing was a knowing participant in the illegal activities for which they intend to convict Rezko.
Of course, Blagojevich may very well be innocent, and the conversations the feds say Cari and Levine had with him may never have occurred. Certainly, Levine's recollections may have been influenced by his plea bargain's prospect of trading life behind bars for 67 months.
But that's for the jury or the judge to decide when Blagojevich goes to trial. His indictment, though, seems a certainty, based on what prosecutors say they will prove in the Rezko trial.
If this all sounds familiar, it should. The citizens of Illinois have been down this road before, and not so long ago. Indeed, the current federal inquiry into corruption under Blagojevich bears an uncanny resemblance to the investigation that resulted in former Gov. George Ryan's public corruption conviction in April 2006.
That probe began with allegations of commercial driver's licenses being exchanged for bribes, some of which wound up in Ryan's campaign coffers during his tenure as secretary of state. As the investigation, dubbed Operation Safe Road, moved higher and higher up the political ladder, reporters dutifully noted with each new indictment that Ryan had not been charged with any crime. The Kankakee Republican consistently maintained his innocence.
Federal prosecutors first linked Ryan to the wrongdoing in December 2002, in another Santiago proffer detailing the government's case against Ryan's top aide, Scott Fawell. The document alleged that Ryan was present when Fawell ordered the destruction of campaign records showing illegal activities before federal investigators could seize them.
One day shy of a year later, Ryan himself was indicted on 21 counts of misusing his public office for personal gain. He was convicted on all counts, and after losing his appeal, reported to the federal prison in Oxford, Wis., last November to begin serving a six-and-a-half-year sentence.
With the Rezko proffer, Illinois moves closer to an unwanted and lamentable distinction — having two former governors in federal prison at the same time.
Charles N. Wheeler III is director of the Public Affairs Reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Issues, February 2008
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