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If hanging around the likes of Blagojevich and Obama went to Rezko’s head, as Mahru suggests, one reason might be that Rezko had befriended them before they became famous, forming bonds of loyalty from the start. The BGA’s Stewart says, “I would give the guy credit for being shrewd. He would identify young up-and-comers early. Fine, Obama, he’s the editor of the Harvard Law Review, but in Chicago politics, big deal, so what. But [Rezko] approached Obama. Rod Blagojevich, he’s an unimportant state legislator. What distinguishes Rezko—he didn’t just give money to established figures.”
Rezko read a newspaper article about Obama’s Law Review election and had a colleague get in touch; in 1990 Rezko offered Obama a job at Rezmar before he had graduated from Harvard Law School. Obama declined, joining a Chicago law firm instead. There he did what he has described as a minimal amount of legal work for Rezmar. Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, author of the recently published Obama: From Promise to Power, says, “Rezko threw an early fundraiser for Obama at his North Shore house, and that fundraiser was instrumental in providing Obama with seed money” for his U.S. Senate race in 2004.
In our conversation, Rezko was reluctant to discuss his association with Obama, except to stress that he has had no formal role in Obama’s campaigns. He would not comment on Obama’s real-estate deals.
Rezko met Blagojevich in 1995, when the future governor was a state representative from the Northwest Side. Rezko helped to finance Blagojevich’s runs for office, in 1996 for Congress and in 2002 for governor. The Chicago Sun-Times has reported that Rezko and his family, businesses, and business associates have contributed more than $675,000 to 15 prominent Illinois politicians since 1989. That sum includes $117,652 for Blagojevich.
“What distinguishes Rezko—he didn’t just give money to established figures."
Rezko became a virtual one-man headhunting firm for staffing the Blagojevich administration, sending along recommended candidates, many of whom ended up getting appointments. He recommended or had personal or business ties with people who became the heads of the state departments of employment security, central management services, commerce and economic opportunity, housing development, and the finance authority. In addition, Rezko successfully urged the appointments of three members of the teachers’ retirement system, four of the health facilities planning board, and at least one member of the state board of capital development. (The U.S. attorney here has charged that Rezko schemed to pack the government with his cronies so that they could peddle their influence.)
The clout of Rezko and his associates reflects the growing political presence of Arab Americans as a group. Ray Hanania, author of Arabs of Chicagoland, estimates there are 250,000 people of Arab descent in northeastern Illinois. Hanania describes Rezko as “very personable and generous” and remembers that he was “a major donor” to the Arab American Democratic Club, which Hanania helped found in 1994. The club staged a major fundraiser in Bridgeview in September 2006 for Blagojevich’s reelection.
Aside from a donation, Rezko says, “I was never involved with that. I am proud of being Arab American, don’t get me wrong, but I was never involved with that [club].”
One member of the club, Khalil Shalabi, was director of project development for the Illinois Department of Human Services. He left the department in October 2006 after the state’s executive inspector general alleged he had arranged fundraisers for Blagojevich on state time. (Shalabi has not been charged with a crime.) Another Blagojevich appointee, Ali D. Ata, resigned as head of the Illinois Finance Authority in March 2005 after a harshly critical state audit of his agency. Ata was indicted last May as a codefendant in the Rezko case and has pleaded not guilty.
Hanania criticizes Arab American business leaders as “a small cluster of activists, and they are all in trouble. They had a push for clout empowerment, not community empowerment—you know, a hunger for being part of the system, sharing the perks among the insiders. When you connect all the names and lines, it’s going to look like a spider web.”
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