Jury selection begins in Rezko trial

A real estate developer and supporter of Barack Obama's goes on trial. How will the courtroom drama affect the presidential candidate?

By Alex Koppelman
Published March 3, 2008 4:12PM (EST)

There's been one name dogging Barack Obama recently: Tony Rezko. And the situation doesn't look as if it'll be getting any better for Obama in the near future, as Monday morning marked the beginning of jury selection in Rezko's federal trial.

Rezko, a Chicago businessman who made his money in real estate and fast food, was a prolific political fundraiser and contributor to many area politicians, but his name and Obama's have become singularly linked. That's in no small part due to letters Obama sent on behalf of plans for apartment development by Rezko and a partner, and due to a parcel of land Obama bought from Rezko to enlarge his home's backyard; Obama bought the land in 2005, after the federal investigation of Rezko was already public knowledge. (Obama has donated to charity the money his Senate campaign received from Rezko and associates caught up in the investigation.)

Naturally, the Rezko trial -- he has been charged with, among other things, bribing political officials -- will be a potential minefield for Obama and his campaign. That'll be especially true if, as ABC News speculates, Obama is called as a witness for the defense. (ABC's story on the subject is, as noted, speculative, and somewhat thin -- there's been no public suggestion from the defense that it would call Obama -- but there are, as a former Chicago federal prosecutor notes in the story, reasons to believe the defense would want to call him.)

And Hillary Clinton's campaign is wasting no time in exploiting the situation to its benefit. Monday, the Clinton campaign e-mailed reporters a memo on the subject, titled "Questions Sen. Obama Should Answer About Tony Rezko." The full memo appears after the jump.

The trail (sic) of indicted influence peddler Tony Rezko -- longtime friend and political patron of Sen. Barack Obama -- starts today. Sen. Obama's name has already surfaced in pre-trial documents submitted by the prosecution and, according to media reports, is likely to surface again as the trial progresses. Democrats deserve the answers to these questions as they consider their votes:

1. Will Sen. Obama release all documents related to his relationship with Tony Rezko, including all documents related to his controversial land transaction?

Howard Wolfson asked top Obama strategist David Axelrod this question on ABC's This Week and the campaign has yet to respond. [ABC's "This Week," 3/2/08]

2. When, specifically, did Sen. Obama become aware of Mr. Rezko's legal problems?

On national television this January, Sen. Obama said "no one had an inkling" of Rezko's legal troubles during the course of their relationship. Actually, it was already widely reported that Mr. Rezko was under investigation for participating in a kickback scheme prior to their controversial land transaction. [CBS, 1/23/08; Chicago Sun-Times, 9/16/05]

3. Sen. Obama has returned money from several individuals who are publicly associated with Mr. Rezko. How much money did Mr. Rezko bundle for Sen. Obama's campaigns in total, including people who are not business associates of Mr. Rezko? How many fundraisers did Mr. Rezko hold for Sen. Obama? Has there been an internal investigation to determine how many straw donors Mr. Rezko used to funnel money to Sen. Obama?

The Obama campaign has returned money from people who are publicly associate (sic) with Mr. Rezko. But they have not revealed who much (sic) Mr. Rezko bundled for Sen. Obama in total. The Chicago Sun Times reported that the Obama campaign "declined to say" whether they maintained a list of the money that Mr. Rezko raised for Mr. Obama over the course of his career. [Chicago Sun-Times, 1/23/08]

4. Much of the upcoming trail (sic) involves Mr. Rezko's efforts to control state boards as a means to defraud the state government. Have Sen. Obama and Mr. Rezko ever communicated about potential appointments to Illinois boards and commissions? It's been publicly reported that Sen. Obama lobbied these same state boards to secure contracts for campaign donors. Did Sen. Obama ever confer with Mr. Rezko concerning how to successfully lobby state boards?

The indictment alleges that Mr. Rezko manipulated state government boards to defraud the people of Illinois. At the same time, "Mr. Obama met with three state pension boards," urging them to give contracts to specific firms. Later, employees of these companies "donated more than $300,000 to help Mr. Obama win his seat in the United States Senate in 2004 and set fund-raising records early in the 2008 presidential race." [New York Times, 10/01/07]

5. The New York Times reported that Sen. Obama attended a business meeting on behalf of Mr. Rezko to impress potential investors for his business schemes. How many events did Sen. Obama attend on behalf of Mr. Rezko to impress investors? What was his role? Why did Sen. Obama agree to attend?

The New York Times reported in June that "Former Rezko associates said that Governor Blagojevich attended one of the dinners, and that at Mr. Rezko's request, Mr. Obama dropped in at one for Middle Eastern bankers in early 2004, just as he was starting to pull ahead in the Senate primary. The visits, Mr. Rezko's partners said, helped impress foreign guests." [New York Times, 6/14/07]

6. How many times did Senator Obama visit Tony Rezko's house? What was the purpose of these visits?

The Times of London reports that "The court is also expected to hear from John Thomas, an FBI mole, who reportedly witnessed Mr Obama and Mr Blagojevich making frequent visits to Mr Rezko." [The Times, 3/3/08]

7. Did Sen. Obama intercede on behalf of Mr. Rezko in any governmental capacity?

The Chicago Sun-Times reported that "As a state senator, Barack Obama wrote letters to city and state officials supporting his political patron Tony Rezko's successful bid to get more than $14 million from taxpayers to build apartments for senior citizens." They have not said whether there were any other actions that Obama took for the benefit of Rezko. [Chicago Sun-Times, 6/13/07]

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama