- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) — A high-powered attorney testified yesterday that he got political fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko to back an $81 million hospital construction project by dangling a bribe of as much as $1.5 million.

Stuart Levine, the government’s star witness at Mr. Rezko’s fraud trial, said that in early 2003 Mr. Rezko was opposed to Mercy Health System’s plan to build the hospital in McHenry County’s Crystal Lake.

Prosecutors say that could have been fatal to the $81 million plan because they contend Mr. Rezko, a major campaign fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, controlled the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, which had life-or-death power over such plans.

Mr. Levine said Mr. Rezko’s turnabout came at a meeting in the fundraiser’s office.

“I said, ‘Would it make a difference if you and I could make a lot of money if Mercy got its CON?’ ” Mr. Levine testified yesterday, referring to the “certificate of need” the board must issue before any new hospital construction is begun in Illinois.

“You bet!” Mr. Levine quoted Mr. Rezko as saying.

Mr. Levine said that in the same conversation, he dangled the possibility that a contractor who already had paid him a pair of $1 million bribes for unrelated matters and figured to build the Crystal Lake hospital also would be willing to contribute generously to Mr. Blagojevich’s campaign fund.

That contractor, Jacob Kiferbaum, has pleaded guilty in the case. Mr. Blagojevich has not been charged with wrongdoing.

A week before the key planning board meeting where the project was pushed through, Mr. Levine said, he met Mr. Rezko for dinner at the Standard Club in downtown Chicago and again brought up the subject.

“I described how the bribe would be split,” Mr. Levine testified. “One half for Mr. Rezko and one half for me.”

Mr. Levine said he still hadn’t finalized the specifics with Kiferbaum.

“[Kiferbaum] had already agreed it would be between $1 million and $1.5 million and I told Mr. Rezko at the meeting it would be $1.5 million,” Mr. Levine testified.

The measure went through the board a week later with the minimum five votes needed for approval. All five were from board members who had been sponsored for their seats by Mr. Rezko.

But Mr. Rezko’s attorneys say he never ordered anybody to approve the project and he never agreed to accept a bribe. They say Mr. Levine’s memory is unreliable because he was a heavy drug user at the time.

While Mr. Rezko’s fundraising for Mr. Obama had been mentioned early in the trial, the charges against him have little, if anything, to do with the Democratic presidential contender, who has not been accused of wrongdoing.

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