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Two days before last November’s elections, benefactors held a fashion show in the Rosemont convention center to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The invitation to the affair offered a veritable guidebook to political influence in Illinois, much of it centered on one St. Jude benefactor, Antoin “Tony” Rezko.
The chair of the event was Rezko’s wife, Rita, a member of the Cook County Employee Appeals Board, which hears cases brought by fired or disciplined workers. (She was appointed to the part-time post, which pays $37,000 a year, by John Stroger, the former president of the Cook County Board, whose 2002 campaign finance committee was headed by Tony Rezko.) The fashion show’s honorary cochair was Governor Rod Blagojevich’s wife, Patti, who owns a real-estate firm (and has been involved in real-estate deals with Tony Rezko dating back to 1997).
The event’s sponsoring committee included Governor Blagojevich’s former spokeswoman, Cheryle Jackson, who now heads the Chicago Urban League; Becky Ruff Chipparoni, whose husband, Guy Chipparoni, was the press secretary for then secretary of state Jim Edgar before setting up a public-relations firm in Chicago (Chipparoni has represented some of Rezko’s businesses); and Hollie Rumman, whose husband, Michael Rumman, served as one of Blagojevich’s cabinet members (and is an investor with Rezko in various deals, such as a proposed power plant in Iraq).
Michelle Obama, wife of the Democratic U.S. senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama, was a special guest that day (even though the news had just broken about Rezko’s participation in a funky real-estate transaction involving the Obamas’ Hyde Park home).
The fashion show attracted little if any media coverage, which may have been exactly as its organizers and sponsors had hoped. Just three weeks earlier, Tony Rezko had been indicted on charges of extorting kickbacks from businesses seeking contracts from the Blagojevich administration. Rezko has pleaded not guilty. The trial is scheduled for February 25th in the U.S. District Court for Northern Illinois.
Were it not for that hovering indictment, Tony Rezko, 52, could boast a résumé straight out of the American rags-to-riches canon. In 1974, he stepped off an airplane at O’Hare Airport as a 19-year-old engineering student who barely spoke English. Within a decade, he had become a U.S. citizen and was moving in the highest financial and political circles in the state. Though one former colleague recalls that Rezko had little interest in politics when he first made his way in business, that changed in time, and he developed a remarkable knack for spotting political talent early, including a young African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Was Rezko simply interested in advancing smart public servants (and perhaps basking in the excitement of being close to power)? Or did he have a more mercenary motive, as the charges against him suggest?
Rezko agreed to sit down with Chicago to talk about his past, though he refused to discuss his indictment or pending trial (with a few brief exceptions). Interviewed in the Loop offices of his lawyer, Joseph J. Duffy, Rezko, as always, looked as though he had just stepped out of a barbershop after visiting his tailor. Of average height and buttoned up in both dress and demeanor, Rezko—who still speaks with an Arab accent—gives clipped, terse answers to many questions about his personal and business affairs. He always liked to operate privately and behind the scenes, which might be one reason he was able to grow close to assorted politicians.
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Photograph: Katrina Wittkamp