Ex-Blagojevich fundraiser Rezko faces sentencing

November 22, 2011 - 4:20 AM

CHICAGO (AP) —

More than three years after businessman Antoin "Tony" Rezko was convicted of corruption in a trial that laid bare Illinois' pay-to-play political culture and presaged notorious cases that battered the state's reputation, a judge finally will mete out his punishment.

Rezko, 56, a former top fundraiser to disgraced ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court Tuesday on his 2008 conviction for fraud, money laundering and plotting to squeeze $7 million in kickbacks from firms that wanted to do business with the state during Blagojevich's tenure.

U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve must decide whether Rezko — whose sentencing was delayed after he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors investigating Blagojevich and others — has served enough time, as his attorneys have argued. They say he should be set free because he's already served more time than others convicted as part of the investigation.

Prosecutors have asked for a sentence of 11 to 15 years, saying Rezko's cooperation was too little, came too late and did not yield any useful information.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Joel R. Levin said he doesn't think Rezko will walk away with time served, but also would be surprised if St. Eve sentenced him to as much time as prosecutors want. Elected officials generally are considered most at fault in any corruption scheme, and Blagojevich is scheduled to be sentenced by another judge Dec. 6 on a host of corruption convictions that include trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.

"One basic principle of sentencing is relative culpability," Levin said, noting that Blagojevich's predecessor, Gov. George Ryan, is serving a 6½-year sentence for corruption.

During Rezko's nine-week trial, prosecutors said the former Chicago real estate developer and fast-food entrepreneur raised over $1 million for Blagojevich and got so much clout in return he could control two powerful state boards.

They accused him of plotting with admitted political fixer Stuart Levine to squeeze payoffs from money management firms that sought to invest the assets of the $40 billion state Teachers Retirement System and said he plotted with Levine to get a $1.5 million bribe from a contractor who sought state approval to build a hospital.

Levine pleaded guilty and became the government's star witness at Rezko's trial and this year's trial of Springfield powerbroker and millionaire businessman William Cellini, who was convicted Nov. 1 of conspiring with Rezko and others to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby."

Rezko's lawyers complained that, in exchange for Levine's cooperation, prosecutors had recommended a prison term of just 5½ years.

But prosecutors say Levine's cooperation with the government started sooner, lasted longer and reaped more dramatic results.

"Levine's cooperation with the government has been truly remarkable, while Rezko's has not (been)," prosecutors said in their court filing asking for the stiff sentence.

Cellini was arrested four months after Rezko's conviction and Blagojevich six months later, but not because of information provided by Rezko, prosecutors said. Rezko also offered to testify at Blagojevich's and Cellini's trials, but prosecutors said they eventually concluded that his persistent lies long after he was charged would have made him a vulnerable, ineffective witness.

In court papers, Rezko's attorneys offered a picture of the Syrian immigrant as an eager philanthropist who was "shocked" by Blagojevich's proposed brainstorming on ways to profit from his gubernatorial decisions.

Prosecutors, though, said Rezko often took the initiative and described him standing before the then-governor and other confidants at an office chalkboard, diagraming various scams.

Rezko also raised money for Obama during his campaigns for Illinois senator, though not for Obama's presidential campaign. Obama has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case, but his relationship with Rezko became an issue during the 2008 election.

Though Cellini's trial was the last one stemming from the federal investigation of the Blagojevich administration — no other charges are pending — Levin said it remains to be seen whether the state can shed its reputation for corruption and move forward.

"I'll tell you this: Conviction or incarceration of any individual is not going to solve the problem," Levin said. But prosecutors "hope it has a deterrent effect."