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Trial Begins for Former Obama Fundraiser Rezko

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The corruption trial of a former fund raiser with ties to Barack Obama got under way in Chicago today. Tony Rezko is accused of trying to extort millions of dollars in payoffs and campaign cash from companies seeking to do state business with Illinois. The senator's campaign says the Rezko trial should not have any serious effect on the presidential race.

NPR's Cheryl Corley is in Chicago and joins us now. And Cheryl, tell us about Tony Rezko. Who he is and what kind of relationship he had with Barack Obama.

CHERYL CORLEY: Well, Tony Rezko is 52 years old. He has been a Chicago real estate developer for about 20 years or so, converting old buildings to condos and working with nonprofit groups to provide low-income housing. He's also a businessman who's owned a number of pizza and fast food Chinese restaurant franchises. But he's well known in political circles here as a very prolific fund raiser who's donated to both Democrats and Republicans. For instance, he's given money to both President Clinton and to President George W. Bush. But mostly, he donates to Illinois Democrats, including Senator Obama.

As far as their relationship goes, it's a fairly long one. Mr. Rezko first noticed Barack Obama when he was the president of Harvard's Law Review and offered him a job, which the senator declined. Obama's law firm did some legal work for Rezko's development companies. And during most of the senator's political life, Tony Rezko has contributed to his campaigns.

BLOCK: And what are the charges that Tony Rezko is facing in this trial, and is Barack Obama implicated in any way?

CORLEY: Tony Rezko is accused of being involved in what the U.S. attorney here calls a pay-to-play-scheme on steroids. Mr. Rezko helped secure state positions for a number of people in the administration of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, and he's accused of trying to collect, along with others who've been charged in this case, millions of dollars by shaking down firms seeking to do business, particularly with two state boards. Federal officials said they thwarted that plan, with Rezko apparently only able to pocket about a quarter of a million dollars. But the plan called for the money to go to Rezko or to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich's campaign coffers.

So Rezko faces a number of charges including attempted extortion and money laundering, charges like that. Senator Obama is not implicated, although his name is likely to come up. The federal judge in this case has ruled that prosecutors could introduce evidence that Tony Rezko used straw donors to get around campaign limits to give money to politicians, and that apparently included Senator Obama.

BLOCK: Now, we've heard that Obama's campaign says that this shouldn't be an issue in the presidential race. But for Senator Clinton's side, they think it is an issue. How is that coming up?

CORLEY: Well, the issue that they've been bringing up, at least the Clinton campaign, is an issue about a land deal that Tony Rezko and a senator were involved in after the senator decided to buy a home after he began collecting royalties from one of his books. Apparently, he and Mr. Rezko looked at that property. Senator Obama bought the home. There was an adjacent lot which Tony Rezko's wife bought, and sold a slice of it to the Obamas to extend their yard. And Hillary Clinton has tried to make that an issue during the campaign.

BLOCK: And this was all taking place at a time when Tony Rezko was under investigation.

CORLEY: Yes, indeed. Senator Obama, I must say, has said that it was a boneheaded mistake, and he's donated more than $160,000 that can be linked to Tony Rezko back to charity.

BLOCK: Now, were any of these issues that the Clinton campaign has raised, are they mentioned in the indictment against Tony Rezko?

CORLEY: No, they're not. They are issues that the Clinton campaign tries to address. I talked to the Obama campaign today, and they say that after much reporting about this land deal, it's clear that this is not a case at all about Senator Obama.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Cheryl Corley reporting from Chicago. Thanks very much.

CORLEY: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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.