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Stuart Levine called a ‘historic cooperator’

Defense Attorney Jeffrey Steinback (left) with his client Stuart Levine  Dirksen Federal Building Thursday after Levine was sentenced 67

Defense Attorney Jeffrey Steinback (left) with his client, Stuart Levine, at the Dirksen Federal Building on Thursday after Levine was sentenced to 67 months in prison. | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: August 21, 2012 6:36AM



Stuart Levine has to be one of the most downright despicable, loathsome white-collar criminals ever to pass through the doors of the Dirksen Federal Courthouse.

Before federal agents caught up with him about eight years ago in pursuit of dirty dealings in the Rod Blagojevich administration, corruption was simply Levine’s way of life — and a lucrative one at that.

He stole from the taxpayers. He stole from charities. He stole from the heirs of the mentor who made him a millionaire.

As I believe I correctly described it when he first testified against Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko: Everything involving Levine was a lie wrapped inside a ruse, covering up a con, capped off with a tax dodge.

And that’s why it’s all the more bizarre to realize he walked back out those courthouse doors for possibly the last time Thursday as practically a hero. Yes, hero.

Practically.

Nobody used that word to describe Levine before U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve sentenced him to 5½ years in prison ­— agreeing to honor a 2006 plea bargain deal Levine struck with federal prosecutors in exchange for his cooperation.

Instead, prosecutor Chris Niewoehner used terms like “truly historic cooperator” and spoke of how Levine had helped take down a “hall of fame” of corrupt Illinois insiders — including Rezko, Bill Cellini and Eddie Vrdolyak.

Without Levine, there wouldn’t even have been a Blagojevich trial, Niewoehner told the judge.

St. Eve herself called Levine “one of the most valuable cooperators” ever seen in the Northern District of Illinois — as well as one of the most corrupt. (That gives me an idea: How about we start an annual Stuey Levine MVC Award for the year’s “most valuable cooperator.” Somebody remind me.)

Even suggesting here that Levine is any sort of hero catches in my throat — or at least gives my keyboard pause — as I have always found him particularly repugnant.

But the record shows that for more than seven years, Levine has faced down his own considerable inner demons — along with at least one “credible threat,” presumably of the death variety and requiring FBI intervention — to help make the cases for which most of us have been properly hailing then-U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

That’s not to put Levine on par with the good guys, only to acknowledge it takes his type to enable Fitzgerald’s type to succeed.

Crooks who become “cooperators” are always a challenge for the criminal justice system.

Without them, you can’t catch the bigger crooks. Let them off too easily and you risk minimizing the seriousness of their crimes.

Rarely is that dichotomy on display as strongly as in Levine’s case, in large part because he confessed to so many misdeeds, including a secret life of illicit drug use and sexual peccadilloes that served to magnify his humiliation and contributed to the collapse of his marriage. Much of the self-incriminating information Levine provided was previously unknown to investigators — and might have stayed that way.

Defense attorney Jeffrey Steinback, a sentencing specialist who is the guy you’d want pleading your case at the Pearly Gates, argued it was Levine’s determination to straighten out his life and do the right thing that convinced him to go forward as a cooperating witness despite the embarrassment he expected to endure.

Niewoehner noted that a “perverse result” of Levine’s full disclosure and the Rezko trial was that the defendant Rezko, whose career in crime was at least as extensive as Levine’s, only had to defend himself against the specific charges at hand while Levine, as his accusing witness, was forced to air out his own entire lifetime of wrongdoing.

In truth, Niewoehner said, Levine and Rezko were “equally culpable for their criminal pasts.” Rezko drew a 10-œ year sentence.

There had been concern going into Thursday’s sentencing hearing that St. Eve would undo the deal Levine had made with prosecutors and penalize him for his combative testimony on cross-examination in the Rezko trial, where she correctly observed that he came off as arrogant and egotistical.

But she said she was persuaded he had done a better job testifying in later trials and appeared a “different person” than the creep on display at Rezko’s trial.

While the hope is that these high-profile prosecutions will eliminate the Rezkos and Cellinis and Vrdolyaks of the political world, the sad truth is there will be more, and we will need the next Levine to take them down.



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