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Tony Rezko talks about his experiences in ‘the hole’

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Updated: July 6, 2012 10:08AM

He wasn’t allowed outside for three years. He lost 40 pounds. He wasn’t allowed to hug his family — or even hold their hands — when they visited.

Tony Rezko said it was so bad when he was locked away after his conviction that he was jealous of Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

They, afterall, at least got to play soccer outdoors. Rezko, convicted of corruption under Rod Blagojevich, watched them on a TV at the Wisconsin county jail.

“How do you think I felt when I saw that?” Rezko said.

“I felt miserable. Bad. Where’s justice here?”

Finally breaking his silence after refusing media interviews for years, Rezko shared the details of his prison ordeal with the Chicago Sun-Times in a wide-ranging telephone interview, saying at one point he was treated more harshly than mafia bosses.

“Not one second did I have fresh air. Zero access to fresh air. It was tough.”

But even though he thought the conditions were rotten in Wisconsin, he considered them better than what came just before: solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in downtown Chicago.

In January of 2008, Rezko said he was sleeping in his Wilmette mansion when agents came to arrest him after his bond had been revoked.

“I was home in my own bedroom,” he said.

He was taken directly to solitary confinement.

“The only thing I thought of: It was cold in the hole. It was Jan. 28. They didn’t give me a blanket, I was shivering, I was cold,” Rezko said. Rezko said he comforted himself by telling himself it was still better than being homeless.

“They called me high-risk, even though I came from overseas to go to trial. I gave them my flight information, and they picked me up at the airport.”

Rezko was initially freed on bond, but before trial, his bond was revoked because of information involving a wire transfer.

He was convicted of corrupting two state boards and agreeing to a kickback scheme with fellow insider Stuart Levine. One of Rod Blagojevich’s lawyers dubbed Rezko “the Bernie Madoff of Chicago,” for pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Once a high-rolling fund-raiser to both Barack Obama and Blagojevich, Rezko said on Wednesday that he blamed no one for his predicament but himself.

He would not answer questions about Obama.

Rezko joined a growing chorus of defendants who complain that the government uses hardball tactics with white-collar defendants who won’t play its game. Rezko raised the issue of Christopher Kelly’s suicide.

Rezko said his fellow Blagojevich fund-raiser knew of Rezko’s fate in the hole, and Kelly may have been pushed to the edge after he had been indicted three times and the government moved to revoke his bond.

Federal law enforcement has repeatedly said it has no power over where the U.S. Bureau of Prisons places inmates. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had no comment.

Still, the Bureau of Prisons does look to law enforcement for guidance on where to place defendants and under which security restrictions. And inmates considered “high profile” are often told they are placed into solitary for their own safety.

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons says it does not have a blanket policy of placing high-profile defendants — or any defendants — in solitary, officially called “SHU,” or the Special Housing Unit, said Chris Burke, a bureau spokesman.

“We still have that individual assessment of the inmate, whether we’re protecting him from somebody or protecting others from him,” Burke said. “The bottom line is it’s still the individual needs of that particular inmate.”

Burke said the units are typically designed to hold two inmates. They are typically in that cell for 23 hours a day without access to common areas.

“They may believe they’re not putting them in because they’re high profile, but in the same breath they frequently say that high-profile people need to be put in there for their own protection. So call it what you want,” said veteran Chicago defense lawyer Thomas Anthony Durkin. “I think it’s automatic in a terrorism-related case; I don’t think it’s automatic in a white-collar case. But it certainly happens.”

Durkin recently won a motion to relocate Shaker Masri, charged with terrorism, into general population. In response to a motion by Durkin, the Bureau of Prisons reached an agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s office to move him under certain conditions, Durkin said.

Masri had been in the special housing unit for more than 600 days.

Durkin called solitary “too extreme,” for any inmate, no matter the charge.

“I think it’s outrageous and punitive.”

After his 2008 conviction, Rezko voluntarily went to jail to begin serving his time. Again, he was put into solitary confinement despite repeatedly petitioning to be placed in the general population, he said.

“I asked a number of times,” Rezko said. “My attorneys sent letters saying we’ll take the liability.”

The warden refused, he said. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Correctional Center had no comment.

“I believed it was by design,” Rezko said of spending 10 months in the hole before he was moved. “The same time I was there, [there] was a mafia boss who was in the general population, and I was not. ... Joey the Clown, I think [was] his name. Joey Lombardo? I would run into him going into court,” Rezko said. “I questioned, why was a person like that in the general population? They won’t allow me to be in the general population?”

Rezko began cooperating with prosecutors, and his conditions did improve. But not right away.

He petitioned the court and was finally moved out of solitary into the facility in Dodge County, Wis., in December of 2008.

The county jail was an improvement but still was not designed for long-term detention. Inmates must talk to visitors through glass and are not allowed outdoors. They generally aren’t given fresh fruits or vegetables to eat.

Rezko said those were his darkest days, especially when he saw his 17-year-old daughter, Shenelle, but could not hug her.

“There was a time where I thought I could never touch her anymore,” Rezko said.

When Rezko was sentenced last year, Shenelle sat in the front row of the courtroom and loudly cried out, collapsing into tears, when U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve handed down the sentence.

And it was because Rezko believed he could reduce his sentence that he waited in Dodge. He said he kept delaying the sentencing at the government’s request because they left open the door that he might be called to testify against Blagojevich.

Rezko ultimately wanted to benefit from his cooperation.

At the same time, the government’s case against Blagojevich had greatly shifted. Rezko wasn’t as valuable. Since Rezko began cooperating from jail, the government had wiretapped conversations of Blagojevich involving selling the U.S. Senate seat.

Further, prosecutors said at his sentencing hearing that Rezko had lied to them in debriefing sessions, making him unusable before a jury. Rezko’s attorneys countered that the government had used one of the most deceitful individuals in Chicago history — Stuart Levine — to testify against him in his trial.

Ultimately, prosecutors recommended that Rezko spend 11 to 15 years behind bars. He is serving a 10½ year sentence.

Rezko said he heard about Kelly when he was in Dodge.

“Would Chris Kelly have commit suicide if he was not indicted?” Rezko asked. “Would Orlando Jones have committed the suicide he did if he was not threatened with indictment? I guess not.”

Jones , 52, godson of former County Board President John Stroger, shot himself on a Michigan beach in 2007, shortly after FBI agents approached him about a case in Las Vegas.

Kelly had been indicted three times but would not cooperate.

“What was going through my mind is his kids, his daughters. Three lovely daughters, and I mean the pressure that was put on him. I was very sad. The indictment pressures,” Rezko said of Kelly. “And he probably was fearful of the outcome, obviously. I’m sure he didn’t want to be placed in the hole either, for months. All of that comes into play, you know? Maybe I was blessed to be patient, you know, I let my mind overcome my emotion.”

Kelly committed suicide after pleading guilty to the second of three cases against him in federal court.

Kelly’s lawyer declined to comment about what may have led his client to take his own life.

“He was terribly, terribly upset about what he perceived to be his unfair treatment. I don’t know what put him over the edge. I feel very sad for his family. As a human being, I had a lot of respect for Chris Kelly,” Kelly’s attorney, Michael Monico said. “It’s one of those tragic things that happens in life.”

Rezko denied testimony at his trial saying that he had tried using his political strings to remove U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald from his post. Though he said he would have loved to have seen him gone.

“Did I hope that he would be replaced? Of course I did. Was that hope shared by many in Chicago? Quite a few. More than you would think. The conversation would come about and yeah, you would express your opinion,” Rezko said. “Did I do anything toward that? Hell no.”

Now in federal prison in Downstate Pekin, Rezko, 56, is projected to be released from prison in 2017.

Prison life has improved.

After he was sentenced in November, Rezko was placed back into the federal prison system. He now plays soccer twice a week.

Rezko, who sounds relaxed over the phone, laughs easily.

“Obviously, I have adjusted over the years,” he said.

He has a job behind bars. It’s in education. He teaches a business class to other inmates for an hour and a half a week and helps inmates with their resumes or other questions. He’s no longer in a cell, but in a dorm-style setting.

“We have full access to outdoors. There’s a soccer field, softball, baseball diamond. Big gym. I’m in a lot of activities,” Rezko said. “I did play soccer in college, so I have some of it still in me.”

Inmates are given three visiting days per week, so he visits with his family.

When he was moved to Pekin several months ago, Rezko said he had one of the most emotional exchanges he’s had over the last several years.

For the first time in a while, he was able to embrace his daughter again.

“She didn’t want to let me go, I didn’t want to let her go. It was very emotional.”

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