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After conviction, attorney Joseph Cari trying for comeback, but no more politics

Joseph Cari

Joseph Cari

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Updated: August 15, 2013 6:29AM

WASHINGTON — There was a time when Joseph Cari — once a Chicago lawyer, major Democratic fund-raiser, pal of Bill Clinton and Joe Biden, Al Gore’s top presidential campaign money man — was a very big deal in this city. But it all fell apart about eight years ago, when federal prosecutors targeted him in a probe that also netted Rod Blagojevich and Tony Rezko.

Cari’s legal nightmare ended, with no fanfare, on April 24.

That’s when U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve in Chicago signed an order terminating Cari’s probation after he served 18 months of the 36-month sentence she imposed Aug. 9, 2011.

Cari already had completed nine months of home confinement and 250 hours of community service, which included helping a Haitian grammar school in the wake of the horrific earthquake.

In his first interview since 2005, Cari says: “I am now going on in a new chapter of my life, and that will be a combination of public policy and business and volunteer work, and with great enthusiasm and with great joy. It’s officially done. The chapter is over.”

At his peak, Cari was appointed by President Clinton to the board of Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, taking over as chairman in 1999.

At his low point, he pleaded guilty on Sept. 15, 2005, to attempted extortion, admitting he made phone calls shaking down a Virginia investment firm seeking Illinois’ teacher-pension fund business. A Rezko associate was supposed to get a finder’s fee and use some of that cash for political contributions.

As part of his plea deal, Cari cooperated with federal prosecutors. Cari endured six years of not knowing whether he would end up in prison. He testified at Rezko’s trial and at the first trial for the former Illinois governor.

Now, Cari, 60, is speaking to me from his home in Castellini in Chianti. He lives in Italy and New York, having moved from Chicago in 2006. Cari sold his Lincoln Park home in 2007, and he says the money from the house helped pay his bills.

He left Chicago because “I didn’t want to run into people. I knew I was going to testify, and I thought it would just be better for me not to be there.”

Starting a new life was “painful,” Cari said. “There was a very long time when I just would not get out of bed. But I slowly started one step, one foot in front of the other, and started building up consulting work.”

During the very worst of the darkest days, “for a guy who considered himself so smart, I felt completely helpless to figure out where to go, where to even find hope.

“I’d lost Rita” — his wife, who died of cancer in 2002. “My family was suffering, and I had no clue what my life would be like or if it would even be worthwhile.”

He realized it was. Cari bought the Italian home with his late wife. Last summer, his daughter, Nicole, was married in its garden.

“These are the kinds of things I would have missed if I had not gotten through what Churchill, I guess, called the ‘Black Dog,’ as they call major depression.”

Some friends stuck with Cari throughout the darkest period of his life; others did not.

Clinton and Gore “have just been very, very, good friends,” Cari said. “Especially Gore. I mean, I can’t say enough things about him.”

Cari is building a new life that has elements of his old one but with one exception: no more politics.

He is the chairman and chief executive officer of Integration Capital & Trade Global, an international merchant bank, and travels to London, Mumbai and the Middle East.

Continuing his interest in foreign policy, Cari joined a New York think tank, the World Policy Institute, and on June 4 was named chairman of its advisory board.

He also started working at Loyola Marymount University’s Institute for Leadership Studies in Los Angeles, where his daughter lives. He gives lectures on presidential politics and foreign policy at the Catholic school and is chairman of the institute’s advisory board.

Institute director Michael Genovese says Cari’s probation status was never an issue with the school. “The Catholic tradition is strong with forgiveness,” he said.

On occasion, Cari tells students about how life as he knew it “was over” because of a few phone calls he made in May 2004.

The lesson he teaches, Cari says, is “no matter where you are in life, no matter how self-assured you are, you have to think through what you are doing. And I did not.”

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