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Tony Rezko says Blagojevich knew about pay-to-play scheme

Tony Rezko

Listen: Tony Rezko on former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and pay-to-play schemes

Updated: July 6, 2012 9:26AM

Tony Rezko, the consummate political fixer who helped launch the careers of Barack Obama and Rod Blagojevich, is finally talking.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview from prison with the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday, Rezko refused to talk about his former friend who went on to be elected president.

But Rezko had plenty to say about Blagojevich and corruption in Illinois politics.

Rezko, serving a 10 ½ year sentence in a federal prison in Downstate Pekin, said Blagojevich handed out political appointments in exchange for campaign contributions. Rezko said he himself was tried and convicted on crimes he did not commit. But Rezko admitted to other crimes.

The former Wilmette businessman expressed surprise at the Senate seat charges involving Blagojevich; namely that the former governor wasn’t more careful in his telephone conversations.

He called the disgraced governor’s 14-year prison sentence “ridiculous.”

While he denounced a judicial system that rewarded serial conman Stuart Levine for cooperating with the government, Rezko said he ultimately blamed no one for his predicament but himself.

And Rezko was adamant that Blagojevich knew of the pay-to-play politics in his administration, including the trading of political appointments for campaign contributions.

“Yes, he did,” Rezko said of Blagojevich’s knowledge of pay-to-play. “We would have the discussions. X, Y and Z made a $50,000 [contribution] and looking to be placed on a board, where should we place that person if that person specifically requested to be placed on board. Yeah. We had these discussions.”

The accusation that Blagojevich sold appointments — which the governor repeatedly denied — was first made public by Ald. Dick Mell (33rd), Blagojevich’s father-in-law, sparking a feud that still divides the family.

Rezko was behind bars when Blagojevich was arrested on charges that he tried to sell Obama’s old Senate seat. But there was something else that surprised Rezko.

“I thought he knew better, I should say. I was surprised. I was surprised that he had said the things he said with regard to the Senate seat on the phone,” Rezko said. “I wasn’t surprised that these conversations take place, I was surprised that these conversations take place on the phone.”

Rezko said he never bribed the now-imprisoned Blagojevich and said Patti Blagojevich did do work in exchange for the more than $12,000 a month Rezko’s realty company paid her. He also said there was no wrongdoing tied to the rehab of Blagojevich’s home, which was done by Rezko companies. “I’m not aware of him getting cash from anybody,” Rezko said of Blagojevich.

Rezko seemed to back up trial testimony by former Blagojevich chief of staff Lon Monk that the ex-governor took part in private meetings in which the three of them and the late Christopher Kelly discussed how to make money off of state deals.

But when pressed, Rezko declined to give details.

“We did have meetings. Quite a few times, where it was me and Chris Kelly and Rod. I do not recall specifically things he said. But yeah, we had meetings like that,” Rezko said when asked of Monk’s testimony. Rezko said the scheme did not happen “in the way that I read about in the paper.” When asked for additional information, Rezko would not answer, saying: “Let’s go to a different topic.”

Blagojevich’s lawyer, Shelly Sorosky, downplayed the allegations of money for appointments. “There was never any evidence presented at trial that Blagojevich was aware that people were being appointed to boards in return for campaign contributions,” Sorosky said.

In 2008, Rezko was convicted on 16 of 24 counts that accused him of corrupting two state boards and using his influence in Blagojevich’s inner circle to squeeze cash from firms seeking state business.

“I was shocked. At no time I thought they’d give me 10 ½ years,” Rezko said. I was indicted, tried and convicted on a crime I did not commit … I have done things that I could have been indicted and tried for. I’m not saying I’m an angel,” Rezko said. “I did do things that were related to play-to-play. But I did not do what they indicted me and convicted me of.”

He immediately reported to jail and then began cooperating with authorities. Rezko was poised to testify against Blagojevich, but ultimately he was never called and eventually sentenced to 10 1/2 years. Before that, he lived in a Wilmette mansion, where he held fund-raisers, including for Obama. He had a knack for finding the right star and betting on his rise.

He’s been long known to be the man behind the curtain, who helped craft deals but rarely showed his face or talked to the media.

His trial took place in the Spring of 2008, in the midst of a heated presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Obama. In one debate, Clinton chastised Obama for having ties to Rezko, who had poured money into the campaign fund of Obama earlier in his career.

Rezko was behind bars when authorities arrested Blagojevich in December of 2008 and charged him with attempting to sell Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat, citing recorded conversations.

“I think it was very unsmart of him to have conversations when he did about Obama’s replacement,” Rezko said. “But he is not the evil person who is been portrayed over the last few years. I think he did good things for the state of Illinois.”

“I blame nobody but myself, no. I have no ill feeling toward him [Blagojevich]. Or anybody else. Even Stuart Levine. He did what he had to do.” Rezko was referring to the key witness who testified against him.

Levine, a serial conman who has admitted to committing crimes for nearly the entirety of his adult life, spent parts of 15 days on the witness stand in Rezko’s trial. Under his plea deal, Levine is to serve 5 1/2 5 years behind bars. He has not been officially sentenced yet.

Rezko was taken aback by Blagojevich’s sentence he said. “I think it’s ridiculous for him to be given 14 years,” Rezko said of Blagojevich. “I guess they [thought] they had to give him more than they gave me. It’s not about justice. You think that’s justice?”

Rezko did confirm he handed out cash payments to Monk under the table after Monk complained he wasn’t making enough money. Monk testified Rezko gave him $70,000 to $90,000 in cash.

Rezko initially did not tell prosecutors about the money, something prosecutors cited as they sought a stiff sentence against Rezko last November. Rezko though, said he didn’t ask for favors in return — saying he didn’t need any.

“I did admit I lied to them about Lon Monk… I thought, the guy has young children, he has already indicted and why do I pile [on] more? I knew something that could have damaged him more, “ Rezko said. “I guess he told them … and it backfired on me.”

Looking back on his crimes, Rezko said he regrets his actions.

“Of course. I’m here. I never thought one day I’ll be incarcerated.”

Asked if carrying out pay-to-play was easy to do in Illinois, Rezko laughed heartily.

“I think it is not easier in Illinois than it is in New Jersey, or California, or any other state. I don’t know, I guess that’s the Democratic system. It’s better than what’s out there but it’s not pure,” he said. “Isn’t that part of the world we live in?”

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