- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 31, 2005

An extortion case in Illinois is forcing Democrats to decide whether to return tens of thousands of dollars contributed over the past two elections by Joseph A. Cari Jr., a former national party finance director.

Mr. Cari will plead guilty in federal court later this month to one count of attempted extortion, at which time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat, plan to return his campaign contributions.

But Mr. Cari’s biggest beneficiary in recent years, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, did not respond to several requests about whether it would return the $7,500 he donated in the 2003-04 election cycle.

Though Mr. Cari was mainly a Democratic donor, he did contribute to two Republicans over the past two election cycles. A spokesman for Rep. Mark Green, Wisconsin Republican, who received $314 from Mr. Cari in 2003, didn’t return a call for comment, and a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert could not comment on his receipt of $288 in 2001.

Mr. Cari, a lawyer and longtime operator in Illinois and national Democratic politics, donated $57,742 to Democratic candidates and Democratic-leaning political action committees from 2001 to 2004.

Those contributions included $5,000 to Mr. Emanuel’s campaigns and $2,307 in separate donations to Mrs. Clinton’s political action committee and campaign.

Ann Lewis, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, said it is their policy to return contributions once any contributor is convicted of a felony.

Republicans challenged Mr. Emanuel to return the money both from his campaign and from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), of which he is now the chairman.

“Rahm Emanuel has made ethics the centerpiece of his party’s efforts to gain House seats, and now we know one of the Democratic Party’s leading fundraisers is up to his neck in Tammany Hall-style political corruption,” said Ed Patru, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

“If it’s an ethics war they want, they’ll get it,” Mr. Patru said.

The DCCC said Mr. Emanuel will return the contributions to his campaign if Mr. Cari does, indeed, plead guilty. As for the DCCC contributions, which amounted to $5,000 in the past election cycle, spokesman Bill Burton said that will be reviewed.

“At the DCCC, we have tough standards in place to ensure we don’t get such donations, but if for some reason something slips through, we will return the money,” Mr. Burton said.

Ken Jakubowski, a crisis-management specialist who is serving as Mr. Cari’s spokesman, said Mr. Cari is scheduled to plead guilty Sept. 15.

“Joe Cari did not profit one penny from this episode,” he said.

According to the indictment, Mr. Cari called a McLean company and demanded an $850,000 contract for someone in exchange for the company being able to invest $85 million in the Illinois Teachers Retirement System.

The mastermind of the broader extortion effort, according to the indictment and news reports, is Stuart Levine, who has pleaded not guilty.

He is a major Republican donor who, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, gave $1.6 million from 1993 through June 30, 2004, with 99 percent going to Republicans.

Mr. Jakubowski said that situation is worse, since it’s likely Mr. Levine’s contributions “arose out of ill-gotten gains,” so politicians should return contributions from Mr. Levine.

Records show that one Republican, Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, returned $1,000 to Mr. Levine on May 10, after he was indicted.

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