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Obama Contributor on Trial for Corruption

Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of a Chicago real-estate developer who once raised campaign funds for numerous politicians, including Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Antoin "Tony" Rezko is accused of trying to muscle millions of dollars in payoffs and campaign money out of companies seeking to do business with Illinois. It is expected to be the biggest political corruption case in the state since the former governor was sent to prison.

But Rezko has not always been perceived this way. He used to be a man politicians liked to see coming.

As a real-estate developer and fast food tycoon, he had a reputation of being a gracious guy, as well as a great fundraiser, whose contributions went to both Republicans and Democrats. In Illinois, it was primarily Democrats — including current Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Sen. Barack Obama — who benefited from his generosity.

Sen. Hillary Clinton has blasted Obama for purchasing a piece of land, adjacent to his home, from Rezko. At the time of the sale, it had been widely reported that the developer was being investigated.

Obama has called the land deal a "boneheaded" mistake. Clinton appeared in a photograph with Rezko but received no donations from him.

Cindy Canary, the head of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, says the Rezko trial puts the Obama-Rezko relationship back in the spotlight.

"There are no links that we know of that say there was any kind of quid pro quo with Obama and Rezko, but this can't help the senator," she said.

Rezko stands accused of using his political clout to run a multimillion-dollar extortion scheme in the spring of 2004. Prosecutors say his goal was to collect bogus fees from companies hoping to handle investments from a teachers pension fund and other state boards.

When U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced the indictment more than a year ago, he said Rezko was a leader in a "pay-to-play scheme on steroids."

"People are talking about getting $1.3 million each out of one deal, $250,000 out of another deal, they're going to get a $1 million bribe out of another deal. The amounts of money being shaken down in eight weeks' span was in the millions," he said.

Fitzgerald says those extortion plans were thwarted by federal investigators, adding that Rezko pocketed no more than $250,000.

In court papers, an anonymous beneficiary of the alleged scheme is listed as only Public Official A. But federal judge Amy St. Eve, who will hear the Rezko case, recently identified Public Official A as Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Prosecutors say Rezko became a powerful operative in state government because he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the governor. Blagojevich has not been charged with any wrongdoing, and this past week, he had little to say about the case.

"I don't know much about it. I have a job to do as governor. I have a full-time job, and I don't think its fair for me to comment on a pending court case," he said.

Canary notes that it was just three months ago that the state's former governor, George Ryan, began serving a six-and-a-half year term for his conviction on corruption charges. In the meantime, Obama gave to charity the nearly $150,000 of Rezko-linked contributions that he received.

Canary says she does not expect to see anything from this trial that will slander Obama. "This is very much a case about Illinois and about the executive administration and the governor of Illinois," she said.

But, Canary says, in a hot political presidential race, anything can be damaging.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.