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Obama’s Helpful Hand in Blago-Rezko ‘Pay-to-Play’ Scheme

The president-elect sponsored a measure in the Illinois senate that made Rezko's kickback plot a lot easier to carry out.

by
Abraham H. Miller

Bio

December 16, 2008 - 12:00 am

Against the backdrop of Chicago’s Wacker Drive, Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren stood and analyzed Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s most recent “pay-to-play” scheme, the auctioning of President-elect Barack Obama’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

Absent from the analysis of Governor Blagojevich’s role as auctioneer was the governor’s involvement in an earlier scandal.  That earlier story went generally untouched by the media — outside of Chicago — because it had a direct bearing on the character of then-presidential candidate and media darling Barack Obama.

Now, numerous journalists have been captured before the camera’s lens wondering why U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald “prematurely” had Blago arrested and didn’t build a stronger case.

None of them is suggesting the obvious — that perhaps Fitzgerald had to compel a media frenzy to avoid being transferred or even fired by the new administration for his involvement in the earlier case that has ties to the president-elect.  (After all, it is only the most partisan Democrats that believe only Alberto Gonzales fires non-compliant U.S. attorneys.)

To understand Fitzgerald’s potential problem with the Obama administration, you need to go back to the original “pay-for-play” scheme that caused Blago and wife, Patty, to come under the eye of the federal prosecutor.  You also need to confront Barack  Obama’s role in that scheme.

If you don’t remember Antonin (Tony) Rezko, here’s the Cliff Notes version: If you wanted to build or expand a medical facility in Illinois, you had to cut a deal with Tony. He was the guy with contacts on the state board whose approval you needed. To put it bluntly, he was the guy you paid off to pay off the other guys so you could get the required permits.

Originally, the board was made up of fifteen members. Now, in Chicago, where bribery has become a cultural art form, bribing half of fifteen means you need eight guys in your pocket. That’s a heavy overhead cost.  What if you could reduce your overhead by about forty percent?  Just think how much more money you could make.

Enter Barack Obama, state senator and chairman of the senate’s Health and Human Services Committee. Obama successfully introduced legislation to cut the size of the board down to nine members.  Now you only have to bribe five members. But Obama’s legislation didn’t just cut the size of the board; it put appointment power directly in the hands of Governor Rod Blagojevich.  And Governor “Blago” (as we Chicagoans love to call him) quickly appointed a number of Rezko’s cronies to the board.

One Democratic stalwart without flinching said to me, “Obama did that because he believed in more efficient government.” And Mrs. Rezko closed on the adjoining property next to the Obama mansion on the same day as the Obamas closed on their house, which netted the Obama’s a $300,000 discount on their purchase, because Mrs. Rezko believed the Obamas would be good for the neighborhood. I understand that thoroughly. In a neighborhood with unrepentant terrorists like Bill Ayers, you need some people with integrity to keep up property values.

After his conviction on sixteen of twenty-four counts of the federal fraud indictment and a revocation of his bail, Rezko, according to Chicago observers, was meeting in the federal holding pen with Fitzgerald and singing like the first robin of spring.

Veteran Chicago journalists were on 24/7 Patty watch, thinking that Mrs. Blago was at least going to be the refrain in Rezko’s song and Blago himself was going to be the entire first stanza.  But if Rezko could sing about Blago, would Blago be cooing about Obama? Or maybe a duet would be in the works?

Federal prosecutors do get transferred and even fired for prosecuting the party in power. Ask Carole Lam who successfully prosecuted Congressman Randy Cunningham and found herself looking for work as a result. So Fitzgerald was probably looking at being replaced by a more compliant prosecutor who would know how to cut a deal and keep the song birds silent.

If Obama could be connected to the “pay-for-play” scheme for building medical facilities, both Rezko and Blago had a reduced jail time card to play.  And just as the latest Blago scandal broke, Rezko, whose lawyers were screaming for a quick sentencing hearing, has had a postponement.  And in a rare display of coordinated silence, neither the Rezko defense team nor the talkative Fitzgerald is commenting on the delay.

So, Blago’s newer and bigger indictment keeps Fitzgerald in the game.  There is now no way the Obama administration is going to be able to transfer or fire Fitzgerald and keep alive the “change” mantra.  Too bad the eight federal prosecutors that Alberto (I don’t  recall) Gonzales fired couldn’t drop a high profile case in front of the media.

As for how contagious Chicago corruption is, it now appears that Rahm Emanuel, despite denials, has been engaged in conversations with Blago over the president-elect’s replacement.  That in itself is not illegal.  But if Blago told Emanuel that he wanted money or a cushy union-related job for Obama confidant Valerie Jarrett’s appointment to the vacated senate seat, and Emanuel didn’t report it, that is a problem for the administration.

It’s a long way to spring, but who says song birds can’t sing in the winter.

Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science and a former head of the Intelligence Studies Section of the International Studies Association.
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