(Tribune photo by Milbert O. Brown / March 6, 2008)
Rezko, Obama, and Chicago Corruption
by Abraham H. Miller
July 5, 2008
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science. He grew up in Chicago’s notorious 24th Ward, and he is author of a recent work of Chicago-based fiction, ‘Vorshavsky: A Chicago Story.’
If Tony Rezko were young, blonde and disappeared on a Caribbean Island, Greta Van Sustern would have been all over the Rezko trial. And that very particular Chicago definition of ‘clout’ would have been ingrained in everyone’s lexicon.
But Tony (Antoin) Rezko is simply another middle-aged, bald, Chicago developer who was involved in an influence peddling and kick-back scheme that was connected to a number of politicians, a couple of pension funds, an Iraqi businessman (prepared to upfront millions for bail) and, oh yes, Senator Barack Obama. A jury hit Tony with a conviction on sixteen felony counts out of twenty four in the indictment.
Corruption, at least corruption old-fashioned Chicago style, is par for the city’s political culture. Unlike corruption in other cities, Chicago corruption usually trickled down to the little guy. The myth is that everyone benefited. Of course, some people benefited a lot more than others.
And Chicago corruption was always underscored by a nice dose of reality. When one prominent politician was asked about directing the city’s insurance business to his relatives, he gave a resoundingly uncomplicated answer: Why would anyone bother to go into politics, if he couldn’t throw a little business to his loved ones.
We Chicagoans can resonate to the crisp truthfulness of the response.
Unlike academia where the corruption is so intense, the stakes are so small, and the justifications truly Kafkaesque, the guy on the right side of the take in Chicago could, well, like Tony Rezko, buy a great mansion in fashionable Wilmette, or like Barack Obama get a real discount on a mansion in trendy and liberal Hyde Park-Kenwood.
No further rationale would be required.
Since 1972, on average two Chicago politicians per year have been convicted of felonies. In 1991, when not one Chicago Alderman was convicted or even indicted, the Sun-Times ran that deviant event as a front-page story.
Michelle Obama spent just three years at the Chicago Law Firm of Sidley Austin, far less than a typical associate on the career path to be partner. In a move incongruous with the alleged iconic credentials that are a mainstay of the Michelle hagiography, she took a job with the Democratic machine.
Probably some people think you leave a high- powered, prestigious law firm like Sidley Austin to take a job with the Chicago machine to save the world. But no one who knows how Chicago works is going to buy that!
Michelle was subsequently hired by the University of Chicago, ultimately ending up as the University of Chicago Hospital’s Vice President for External Affairs. Barack was chair of the Illinois Senate’s powerful Health and Human Services Committee, the position tied by some to the Rezko scandal.
If you don’t get the picture, you are definitely not from Chicago.
In 2007 the not-for-profit University of Chicago hospital turned out a profit of 143 million, and is up 118 million for 2008. The hospital is scheduled to receive a 30 million infusion from Medicaid, and will be turning some of its Medicaid patients to another hospital to free up space for its private insurance paying patients. According to the (London ) Daily Mail (online), in 2006 the hospital turned away an indigent man, who died.
When Michelle exhorts young people to turn down the profit system and do something meaningful with their lives, apparently this is not the example she means to convey.
Now you might ask what does a community relations director at a university do? That’s really a naive question. The question is who does the community relation’s director know?
The answer became apparent when Barack was elected to the U.S. Senate and Michelle’s salary more than doubled.
Barack and Michelle were a power couple hooked into the Democratic machine. Tony Rezko cultivated them, the Chicago Way. When the Obamas bought their mansion in trendy Hyde Park-Kenwood, Mrs. Rezko bought the lot next door for asking price in a coordinated deal from the same seller. The Obamas got their house at a discount. Mrs. Rezko paid full price. Later, Mrs. Rezko sold part of the lot to the Obamas to expand their back yard.
What Rezko wanted from Obama became apparent later.
To understand the genius of Rezko, you need to understand that for generations, corruption in Chicago was partisan specific. As my mother used to say when she split her ticket, ‘You need some Republicans. Then the machine can’t steal as much.’
But then came the Chicago Combine: bipartisan corruption you could believe in. Rezko established a typical Chicago ‘pay for play’ scheme, but one that crossed party lines. You want to build a hospital, you had to pay Rezko, who paid the appropriate people who could help you play. The problem that Rezko faced was the hospital board had fifteen members and that is a lot of people to bribe and a lot of loose ends. But then Rezko had a friend who chaired the Illinois Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Enter State Senator Barack Obama, who is credited as the moving force behind a piece of bipartisan legislation (Il. Senate Bill 1332) that reduced the hospital board to nine people, to be appointed by Governor Rod Blagojevich (know as Governor ‘Blago’) with advice and consent of the Illinois Senate.
Blago immediately appointed three physicians, Rezko cronies with similar Middle Eastern backgrounds, all of whom were coincidentally big contributors to Barack Obama. As they say downtown, Barack knows how to walk the Chicago Way. Rezko became the guy you saw if you wanted to build a health care facility. He controlled the board’s votes.
The three appointed physicians have been convicted in the Federal probe and are rumored to be about ready to sing.
Rumor also has it that Patricia Blagojevich, the governor’s wife, is next in line for an indictment. The Chicago press is now 24/7 on active ‘Patti Watch.’
For his part, Rezko just sent a ‘I will not rat out my pals letter,’ to United States District Judge Amy St. Eve. Veteran observers of the Chicago crime scene note that the guys who don’t sing, don’t write letters. They just clam up. You write a letter because you want the other guys to be reminded to take care of your wife and kids’college is expensive.
So, what else does Rezko expect, a presidential pardon, ala Bill Clinton and Carlos Vignali, the dope dealer Clinton’s brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, represented?
So, here’s the deal. If you don’t want a president making it in the alcove near the Oval Office, don’t elect a guy with a history as a rake and a swordsman. If you don’t want a president who can’t negotiate with the majority of his own party, don’t elect a backwoods, Southern governor with a Jesus complex. If you don’t want a president who orders the break in of the opposition, don’t elect a guy whose career was saturated by paranoia.
And if you want to make sure that the White House is not going to be tainted by corruption, don’t elect a president who grew up in the Chicago political system and whose wife thinks that the country owes her some palliative to eliminate her sense of personal shame. Because unlike the stock market, when it comes to human behavior, past performance really is indicative of future results.
End Abraham H. Miller article
Chicago Suntimes, January 26, 2008
Obama has never agreed to an interview about Rezko, but after Clinton injected the name into the campaign on Monday, on Wednesday, ABC’s “Good Morning America’s” Diane Sawyer asked Obama about Rezko. Obama made it seem like he hardly knew Rezko — who was a friend, a client and a fund-raiser — and was clueless about Rezko’s potential criminal legal problems that had been reported by the Chicago press.
Chicago Tribune, David Jackson, March 15, 2008
…in a 90-minute interview with Tribune reporters and editors, Obama disclosed that Rezko had raised more for Obama’s earlier political campaigns than previously known, gathering as much as $250,000 for the first three offices he sought.
A federal jury in Chicago today convicted developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko of corruption charges for trading on his clout as a top adviser and fundraiser to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Rezko’s guilty verdict on 16 of 24 corruption counts could have broad repercussions for Blagojevich, who made Rezko a central player in his kitchen cabinet. It could also prove a political liability for U.S. Sen. Barack Obama.