- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 23, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) — Real estate developer and fast-food magnate Antoin “Tony” Rezko spent years pouring thousands of dollars in campaign contributions into Barack Obama’s climb from the Illinois legislature to Capitol Hill — and helped him raise tens of thousands more.

But these days Mr. Rezko is snared in a nasty political scandal and facing a federal corruption trial that begins next month. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton invoked his name and his “slum landlord business” in a debate with Mr. Obama on Monday. A plainly embarrassed Mr. Obama has been sending the campaign money to charity in an effort to distance himself from the Chicago businessman, including $41,000 over the weekend.

Mr. Obama, a presidential hopeful, has also been forced to explain how Mr. Rezko got tangled in the purchase of the Obama family home and other ties — some of them going back more than 15 years. If federal prosecutors are right, the Obama campaign may have unwittingly accepted money generated by illegal activities.

Mr. Obama, who has a spotless reputation after 11 years in public offices, has been accused of no wrongdoing involving Mr. Rezko or anyone else.

Nevertheless, the former state legislator and first-term U.S. senator seemingly missed plentiful warning signs that Mr. Rezko was headed for trouble with the law.

“The senator exhibited some bad judgment in continuing the relationship once it became clear that Tony Rezko had such serious clouds overhead,” said Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The facts of the relationship between the two men have been public record for more than a year and so far haven’t hurt Mr. Obama with voters. He and Mrs. Clinton are the leaders in the fight for their party’s nomination.

State Sen. Christine Radogno, a Republican, said voters are guaranteed to hear more about Mr. Rezko if Mr. Obama continues to make headway on the campaign trail.

“Obviously, the better he does, the more scrutiny he receives,” she said. “So I think there is going to be some discussion of that.”

Mr. Rezko faces a Feb. 25 trial, almost three weeks after the Super Tuesday primaries that could go a long way in settling the nomination. He is charged with fraud, attempted extortion and money laundering, supposedly for plotting to get campaign money and payoffs from firms seeking to do business before two state boards.

Mr. Obama’s name has not come up in connection with any charges swirling around Mr. Rezko. Prosecutors indicate that the source of Mr. Rezko’s clout was somewhere in Democratic Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s administration.

Obama aides say that is all the money that Mr. Rezko has contributed to the Obama campaigns since he first ran for the Illinois Senate in 1996. They say there’s no telling for sure how much more Mr. Rezko has raised for the senator over 15 years by putting the arm on friends and associates. About $86,000 has been sent by the Obama campaign to various charities after the money was linked in some way to Mr. Rezko.

The Obama-Rezko relationship goes back a long way. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Mr. Obama worked at the Chicago firm of Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland. Mr. Rezko was among clients of the firm, a fact Mrs. Clinton noted in the debate.

Lawyers there say Mr. Obama never represented Mr. Rezko directly. The future senator did represent community organizations that were Rezko partners in rehabilitating buildings to provide apartments for the poor. Mr. Rezko needed the nonprofits as partners to get what added up to $43 million in subsidies for such projects.

As a first-year associate with the law firm, Mr. Obama would not have made many decisions. And he would have had no control over what happened to the apartments, some of which ended up in poor condition with numerous code violations.

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