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Ex-Obama fund-raiser convicted in Illinois fraud, bribery scheme

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Catrin Einhorn and Susan Saulny
New York Times News Service / June 5, 2008

CHICAGO - Antoin Rezko, a once-powerful fund-raiser who helped propel the career of Senator Barack Obama, was found guilty yesterday by a federal jury of 16 criminal counts, including fraud, money-laundering, and bribery in an influence-peddling scheme that touched the highest levels of the administration of Governor Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois.

Rezko, 52, was acquitted on eight additional charges, including attempted extortion.

While Obama's friendship with Rezko has been debated on the campaign trail, no evidence surfaced in the courtroom to suggest that the senator was involved in any wrongdoing.

In reaction to the conviction, Obama expressed disappointment and sought to make a larger point about corruption.

"I'm saddened by today's verdict," Obama said in a statement. "This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew, but now he has been convicted by a jury on multiple charges that once again shine a spotlight on the need for reform. I encourage the General Assembly to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent these kinds of abuses in the future."

During the Democratic primary race, Senator Hillary Clinton repeatedly called attention to Obama's relationship with Rezko in an effort to raise questions about her rival's judgment.

About an hour after the verdict was announced, the Republican National Committee began circulating an e-mail message titled "Rezko: Obama's Longtime Friend and Money Man" that sought to link the two over a 20-year period.

In Chicago, the verdict was seen as a serious blow to Blagojevich, already damaged by the descriptions of pay-to-play politics that emerged in testimony during the trial, which took more than two months, sometimes involving him directly.

Blagojevich, 51, a second-term Democrat who ran as a reformer, has not been charged, but the trial revolved around the inner workings of his administration. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Rezko, a friend and adviser to Blagojevich, as well as one of his top fund-raisers, was accused of using his influence to corrupt two state boards in a scheme to collect millions of dollars in kickbacks from businesses that wanted to do business with the state.

Prosecutors described Rezko as "the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings." Rezko's chief lawyer, Joseph J. Duffy, said he would appeal yesterday's decision.

"We are obviously very disappointed in the jury's verdict today," Duffy said. "We strongly believe in Rezko's innocence."

Obama, whose name rarely came up during the trial, has been criticized for his involvement with Rezko in property transactions related to his home.

As Obama was buying his house in 2005, Rezko's wife, Rita, bought an adjacent empty lot. She later sold the Obamas a portion of the lot that enabled them to expand their yard. Obama has since called the transactions "boneheaded."

According to Obama's campaign, Mr. Rezko may have raised as much as $250,000 for him over the years; the campaign has donated $159,085 in contributions from Rezko, his family, and associates to charity, the amount the campaign says can be "reasonably credited to Rezko's political support."

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