Jury selection begins in Rezko trial

March 3, 2008 8:56:42 PM PST
Another major corruption trial is underway in Chicago: Tony Rezko, who was the chief fundraiser for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, is accused of trying to buy power and influence with political leaders. Jury selection began Monday. Among the first six potential jurors questioned were a former building contractor, an MBA student and an eighth grade school teacher. Among the first questions they were asked: How much exposure have you had to this case in the media?

The courtroom was packed with reporters from all over the country. The case is getting national attention, especially because of Rezko's ties to Democratic presidential candidate and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

"He got into trouble, that was completely unrelated to me, and the trouble that he's in right now is completely unrelated to anything that I have done," said Obama in an appearance on ABC's Nightline.

Obama is doing everything he can to distance himself from Rezko, who donated $85,000 to his campaign. Obama has since given that money to charity.

Obama has called the 2005 real estate deal he made with Rezko, in which Obama bought his Hyde Park home, "boneheaded." Obama's ties to the businessman have drawn criticism from his Democratic rival, former First Lady and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who called Rezko a "slum landlord."

But the trial itself will not focus on Obama's ties to Rezko. The heart of the case involves alleged corruption on two state boards. Federal prosecutors accuse Rezko of taking illegal payments from firms trying to do business with the state then keeping that money for himself or passing it along to campaigns. He is charged with money laundering, extortion, fraud and aiding bribery.

Rezko was one of the top fundraisers for Governor Blagojevich. While Blagojevich has been accused of no wrongdoing, the case has plainly put him in an embarrassing spotlight. Two members of the governor's inner circle are under indictment, and last week, Judge Amy J. St. Eve disclosed that Blagojevich is the anonymous "Public Official A" who has repeatedly been tied to corruption in the government's court papers.

St. Eve asked all the questions herself, interviewing prospective jury members in groups of six. Rezko, the bald, mustachioed defendant wearing a grey suit and borrowed tie, listened and took notes at a table a few feet away.

Despite the news coverage since his indictment 17 months ago, more than half of the 43 panelists questioned Monday had never heard of Rezko. Many on the panel said they did not read newspapers or watch TV news. Twenty more will be questioned Tuesday. Attorneys who has tried political corruption cases in the past say the defense in the case would want informed jury members:

"In this case, you want somebody who's informed, somebody who is about the business of being in politics, involved in the community," said attorney Stanley Hill.

"As much as the judge tells people defendants are presumed innocent, that people come into this building with the notion of, 'Why would they be indicted if they didn't do something?' I think it's an uphill battle for the defense," said attorney Richard Kling.

The indictment includes charges that businessman Rezko tried to extort a $1.5 million contribution from Tom Rosenberg, a Chicago movie producer and financier. Rosenberg, who is on the witness list, will testify that he was trying to get a $220 million investment contract with the state teacher's pension fund when he allegedly was strong-armed by Rezko and pension board member Stuart Levine, who also is listed as a prosecution witness.

The government also alleges that Rezko used his influence to stack state boards and commissions in a scheme the U.S. attorney called "pay for play on steroids."

In court Monday, Judge St. Eve read a list of witness names to the jury panel.

On the South Side of Chicago, Governor Blagojevich reacted to the possibility that his name could come up repeatedly during the testimony.

"I'm not involved in any court case. I have a full-time job as governor. Every day it's a new adventure," he said.

Former federal prosecutor Doug Godfrey said he sees a lot of similarity between this trial and that of Scott Fawell, the former chief of staff to Governor George Ryan. Both are now in federal prisons.

"Maybe - and this is just speculation on my part - the government wants Mr. Levine or Mr. Rezko eventually to be that witness," said Godfrey, Chicago Kent Law School.

Levine has already accepted a deal from the government

Jury selection is expected to take two to three days. The judge said she does not expect opening statements in this trial any time before Wednesday. St. Eve told perspective jurors the case could last as long as three to four months.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.