- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., named over the weekend by presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama as his running mate, has long-standing ties to a Chicago businessman and prominent Obama fundraiser convicted this year in a federal probe that also nabbed a top Biden political supporter.

Chicago restaurateur and real estate developer Antoin “Tony” Rezko, one of Mr. Obama’s first major political donors, was convicted in June on charges of using his Illinois connections to seek kickbacks from firms wanting to do business with the state - an investigation that also netted a guilty plea from Joseph Cari Jr., former national finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee and a longtime supporter and political adviser to Mr. Biden.

Cari, 55, a Chicago lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), admitted in a 2005 plea agreement with U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald to taking part in an $850,000 kickback scheme, which federal prosecutors said was part of a larger political fundraising operation overseen by Rezko.

Federal prosecutors said Cari conspired with Chicago businessman Stuart Levine, a former member of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS), to extort the $850,000 from a Virginia investment firm that was seeking an $850 million contract to invest the money of 325,000 retired state teachers.

“Cari called the firm and told the firm they had to sign the contract by the end of the day or their application for the money would be pulled off the table. He made clear this is the way things are done in Illinois,” Mr. Fitzgerald said at the time of the plea deal, which obligated Cari to cooperate in a then-ongoing government probe.

The plea agreement said Cari took part in the scheme because he thought Levine would help Cari’s private equity firm obtain funds from the Illinois State Pension fund, and possibly other funds or entities.

Mr. Biden has acknowledged knowing Rezko for the past 30 years, and of having a longtime association with Cari, who served as the Delaware Democrat’s Midwest field director in his 1988 run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Cari has been an active Democratic fundraiser and contributor for more than 20 years, listed in federal election records as a major Democratic Party fundraiser for former President Bill Clinton, former Vice President Al Gore and others.

Federal election records show that since 1980, Cari has donated more than $59,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, $33,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $7,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He also has given more than $100,000 directly to candidates, including $4,000 to Mr. Biden.

An Obama spokesman this week dismissed the relevance of the friendships, saying Cari raised a lot of money for a lot of candidates. Still, Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt told reporters Mr. Biden would follow Mr. Obama’s lead and divest any campaign funds he received from Cari.

“As the former national finance director for the DSCC and the DNC, Mr. Cari was a fundraiser for many prominent elected officials,” Mr. LaBolt told reporters. “If any contributions from Mr. Cari have not been returned or donated, it is an oversight, and they will be immediately.”

According to the indictment in the Rezko probe, Cari and Levine, along with “others known to the grand jury,” devised and participated in a scheme to defraud the TRS beginning in early 2002 and continuing through June 2004.

The indictment said that during the course of the scheme, Levine solicited, demanded and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed kickbacks and payments from investment firms seeking to do business with TRS. It said Levine used his official position to guarantee the TRS investments.

It also said it was Levine, with the assistance of Cari, who demanded that the Virginia firm - identified in court records as JER Inc. - pay $850,000 to a consultant identified by Levine. The indictment said Cari “repeatedly told representatives” of the firm that they had to sign a contract with the consultant or the firm would be taken off the TRS business agenda.

Rezko, who is scheduled to be sentenced in October, was found guilty by a federal jury on 16 of 24 counts, including scheming to get kickbacks from money-management firms seeking state business and a contractor who wanted to build a hospital in northern Illinois. He was acquitted of charges that included attempted extortion.

A nine-week trial included explosive testimony about drug-fueled parties involving the government’s star witness and accusations that Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a Democrat, discussed a state job for a donor after the donor handed over a $25,000 check for Mr. Blagojevich’s campaign.

The testimony barely touched on the relationship between Mr. Obama and Rezko, who has known the Democratic presidential candidate since he entered politics and was involved in a 2005 real estate deal with him. Most of the focus was on shakedowns prosecutors said Rezko arranged when he was a top adviser to Mr. Blagojevich.

Neither Mr. Blagojevich nor Mr. Obama has been accused of wrongdoing.

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