In the biggest political corruption trial in Illinois since former Gov. George Ryan went to jail for racketeering, testimony at the federal trial of a top fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich has reinforced the view among state lawmakers and members of the media that the Illinois governor probably won't survive this investigation.
In the wake of the plea agreement by government witness Ali Ata in the trial of Antoin “Tony” Rezko, Blagojevich, who once had his sights set on the White House, is hearing rumblings of impeachment talk from within his own party.
Rezko, a top fundraiser and a close adviser to the governor, is being tried on federal corruption charges. Rezko also raised money for Sen. Barack Obama and other Illinois politicians and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
While Obama is not accused of any wrongdoing, he has subsequently donated all the money raised by Rezko to charity. Obama also entered into a land deal with Rezko in 2005 when it was widely known that the real estate developer was under federal scrutiny.
Prosecutors claim Rezko schemed to try to squeeze bribes and kickbacks from companies that wanted state business, and that some of the kickbacks ended up in the Illinois Democratic senator's campaign coffers.
During closing arguments at the trial in Chicago, Ata, a former executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority, talked about delivering a campaign check to the governor in Rezko's office, after which the two talked about a state job.
This is the first testimony that puts Blagojevich in the room when a payoff got made. Blagojevich allegedly then told Rezko to make sure it was “a job where the defendant could make some money.” If federal investigators can corroborate this with transaction records or any other witness testimony, it will almost certainly result in an indictment against the Governor.
Beginning in or around mid-2003 and continuing through 2004, Ata also is alleged to have provided large sums of cash to Rezko 52, in response to persistent and urgent pressure to do so. In total, Ata claims to have provided Rezko with approximately $125,000 in cash during this period, monies he had withdrawn from a family food distribution business that he was then operating.
He also claimed that he gave Rezko, a top Blagojevich insider, $25,000 to help pay off contractors working on the governor’s house.
Attorneys for Rezko contend the government's star witness is a liar and swindler who was using huge amounts of drugs. They didn't call any witnesses because they say the government didn't prove its case.
Earlier in the trial, witnesses testified about other conversations with Blagojevich.
Joseph Cari, a former national Democratic fund-raiser who pleaded guilty to attempted extortion, testified that the governor told him of plans to finance his dreams of higher office by rewarding donors with state contracts.
Stuart Levine, a government witness who previously pleaded guilty to money laundering and fraud, said that when he went to Blagojevich to thank him for a state board appointment, he said, “Stick with us and you’ll do very well for yourself.”
“I took it to mean I would have an opportunity to make a lot of money,” Levine told jurors.
Former allies of the embattled governor have called on him to resign. In fact, there is rising expectation among the public and political experts that charges will be brought against Blagojevich, 57, even as the governor has denied any criminal activity.
“The governor’s behavior up to this point suggests he won’t go quietly,” said Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois’ Institute for Legislative Studies in Springfield. “But it becomes increasingly more difficult for him to be effective and for people to take him seriously. It just seems like daily we get something new that links the governor’s office to something. It’s pretty disappointing.”
Impeachment also could be likely in the Illinois House, but even if the governor is never put on trial or is removed from office, the damage seems to already be done. Allegations of trading jobs, contracts and appointments for campaign contributions have badly tarnished his political image.
Sen. Mike Jacobs, D-East Moline, has gone on record as saying he is troubled by what he’s reading about the testimony in the Rezko case, and by the revelations of corruption that are surfacing. He thinks Blagojevich, a fellow Democrat, has been "derelict in running the state" and should consider stepping down.
"I’m hardly a reformer. But I’m shocked by what I’m reading," Jacobs said. “Corruption is corruption, and I don’t have any tolerance for it. No one has confidence in the man."
Just last month, Democrat Eliot Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York when a federal investigation into possible money laundering led to his involvement with a prostitute. Spitzer resigned after he was informed impeachment charges would be forthcoming.
Blagojevich may find himself in the same situation. However, he has yet to be charged with any wrongdoing.
In exchange for his testimony, Ata will get no more than 18 months on federal tax-evasion and obstruction of justice charges. In addition, he will remain available for further corruption trials if more charges are brought.
Rezko faces 24 criminal charges, including fraud, solicitation of bribery, attempted extortion and money laundering. If convicted, he could get 10 years behind bars.
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