- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 17, 2012

CHICAGO — A federal judge sentenced a former Illinois official to four years’ probation Tuesday in a “pay-to-play” scheme in which he donated $50,000 to then-Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich’s campaign in exchange for a state job.

Ali Ata, 60, showed little emotion as he spoke briefly in court. “I’m truly sorry for my actions,” said Ata, the former director of the Illinois Finance Authority. “I accept responsibility.”

Judge James Zagel, who also ordered Ata to pay $50,000 in fines and $150,000 in restitution, cited Ata’s cooperation with authorities for his decision to forego a prison sentence. The judge called Ata’s cooperation honorable and useful.

Ata is one of the last figures to be sentenced in a decade-long legal saga that snared more than a dozen men, including Blagojevich.

He testified at Blagojevich’s first corruption trial that ended mostly deadlocked two years ago. His testimony helped convict the impeached governor on one count of lying to the FBI about fundraising. Ata did not testify at Blagojevich’s second, more streamlined trial, during which the former Democratic governor was convicted on additional counts.

Judge Zagel, who sentenced Ata on Tuesday, is the same judge who sentenced Blagojevich to 14 years on 18 corruption counts. Blagojevich began serving his term in March.

Ata pleaded guilty to making false statements to a government agent and filing a false income tax return. Those convictions would normally carry a maximum eight-year sentence.

Ata testified in 2010 that he took a $25,000 check to a meeting in 2003 but didn’t get his job with the authority — which provides public financing to businesses, nonprofit groups and local agencies — until after donating another $25,000 a year later.

After making the second $25,000 payment, Ata said he ran into Blagojevich at a fundraising event, where the then-governor said Ata would, in fact, be getting a state job and that “it had better be one where you can make some money.”

Ata also testified at the earlier trial of Blagojevich fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was convicted in a $7 million kickback scheme.

Ata, a native of Jordan, testified at Rezko’s trial that he came to the United States seeking an education and after graduation from college worked for a water treatment company for 25 years. He said after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, FBI agents came to his company to question him. Two weeks later, the company offered him an early retirement package and he took it.

The government has said it has nothing tying Ata to Sept. 11. Ata said early retirement was not what he wanted.

“It was devastating to myself and my family,” Ata testified.

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