|An Obama Patron and Friend Until an Indictment
New York Times | June 14, 2007
CHICAGO — Antoin Rezko, an entrepreneur of considerable charm who found riches in fast food and real estate, is known around Chicago as a collector of politicians.
Back in the 1990s, Mr. Rezko’s office was adorned with framed photos of candidates he viewed as up-and-comers. Among them was Barack Obama, a state legislator whose first campaign donations included $2,000 from Mr. Rezko’s companies. As Mr. Obama built a career that carried him to the Senate in 2004, Mr. Rezko was there with him, holding fund-raisers and rallying support.
Now, as Mr. Obama runs for president, the once-beneficial relationship with his old friend and patron has become problematic.
Last fall, Mr. Rezko was indicted on federal charges of business fraud and influence peddling involving the administration of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, whose picture was also on Mr. Rezko’s wall. Since then, Mr. Obama, a Democrat, has had to answer questions about a land deal with Mr. Rezko’s wife, Rita, and about other ties to him.
Since early June, Mr. Obama has given to charity more than $21,000 in donations that his Senate campaign had received from Rezko associates now linked to the federal inquiries. He gave away $11,500 from Mr. Rezko himself last fall.
Mr. Obama says he never did any favors for Mr. Rezko, who raised about $150,000 for his campaigns over the years and was once one of the most powerful men in Illinois. There is no sign that Mr. Obama, who declined to be interviewed for this article, did anything improper.
Mr. Obama has portrayed Mr. Rezko as a one-time fund-raiser whom he had occasionally seen socially. But interviews with more than a dozen political and business associates suggest that the two men were closer than the senator has indicated.
Mr. Obama turned to Mr. Rezko for help at several important junctures. Records show that when Mr. Obama needed cash in the waning days of his losing 2000 Congressional campaign, Mr. Rezko rounded up thousands of dollars from business contacts. In 2003, Mr. Rezko helped Mr. Obama expand his fund-raising for the Senate primary by being host of a dinner at his Mediterranean-style home for 150 people, including some whose names have since come up in the influence scandal.
And when Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, bought a house in 2005, Mr. Rezko stepped in again. Even though his finances were deteriorating, Mr. Rezko arranged for his wife to buy an adjacent lot, and she later sold the Obamas a 10-foot-wide strip of land that expanded their yard.
The land sale occurred after it had been reported that Mr. Rezko was under federal investigation. That awkward fact prompted Mr. Obama, who has cast himself as largely free from the normal influences of politics, to express regret over what he called his own bad judgment.
“Senator Obama is a very intelligent man, and everyone by then was very familiar with who Tony Rezko was,” said Cindi Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a nonpartisan research group. “So it was a little stunning that so late in the game Senator Obama would still have such close involvement with Rezko.”
While it is not clear what Mr. Rezko got from the relationship, he liked to display his alliances with politicians, including Mr. Obama.
In one instance, when he was running for the Senate, Mr. Obama stopped by to shake hands while Mr. Rezko, an immigrant from Syria, was entertaining Middle Eastern bankers considering an investment in one of his projects.
[Years earlier, as a state legislator, Mr. Obama wrote letters to city and state officials supporting efforts by Mr. Rezko and a partner to build apartments for the elderly with $14 million in government money, The Chicago Sun-Times reported in its June 13 editions. The developers received $855,000 in fees.]
Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, said the senator was one of several politicians who intervened because the project was important to local residents.
Mr. Burton also said in a statement that the senator “has held himself to a high standard and has had a career in public service fighting for the toughest possible ethical rules.”
“This is not a record changed by anything that has happened to Tony Rezko,” Mr. Burton said.
Mr. Rezko, 51, declined to comment. He has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
People who know Mr. Rezko describe him as warm and personable.