Rezko trial witness told to pay more attention

CHICAGO Outside of the jury's presence, the judge told Stuart Levine he better start answering the questions and quit wasting time. This comes after a whole morning of testimony. Levine would ramble on with his answers or ask the defense attorney to redefine the questions.

Now, if the judge is getting annoyed, certainly the jury must be as well. After all, this is Day 14 with Levine on the witness stand.

Two and a half hours before he is scheduled to appear in court, Levine arrived at the federal courthouse. A very early arrival has become routine for the 62-year old. He's been under cross-examination this week. Levine is the prosecution's key witness in the trial of political fundraiser Rezko. The defense has been trying to whittle away at Levine's character by catching him in a lie or trying to trip up his memory.

On Thursday, Levine took on a more aggressive tone, which proved to be annoying, especially to the judge. Refusing to answer just yes or no to several questions, Levine would often give long explanations for answers or ask defense attorney Joseph Duffy to re-explain his question. In one instance, Levine said, "it is critical that you define circumstances. I would be happy to define circumstances if you want."

\Duffy paused and then shot back, "Mr. Levine, please define the circumstances."

Levine also at one point asked Duffy to rephrase a question and accused Duffy of misreading transcripts of wiretaps. It proved to be too much for judge Amy St. Eve, who lashed out at Levine during a break and told him, "please listen to the question and answer the question. You are not here to engage in a conversation. At the rate you're going, you'll be on the witness stand until May."

Much of the testimony thursday surrounded the details of a controversial Illinois health facilities planning board meeting back in April of 2004. Levine testified that the fix was in to approve a new hospital in Crystal Lake in exchange for a $1.5 million kickback he says he and Rezko shared. Levine was a member of the board.

Through various recorded phone conversations or the lack of them, the defense is trying to prove that Rezko was not behind the deal. Despite the judge's tongue lashing, the testimony continued to ramble on at some points with his answers. It is judge St. Eve that will sentence Levine. In exchange for his testimony at this trial, he did plead guilty.

Wveryone gets a break from Levine Friday. The court is not in session, but he will be back on the witness stand Monday morning.

Rezko, 52, is charged with scheming with Levine to pressure firms seeking state business for kickbacks and split a $1 million bribe from a contractor who wanted to build a hospital in north suburban Crystal Lake.

Rezko denies he ever took part in such a scheme. But the 62-year-old Levine has pleaded guilty and is on the stand as the government's star witness in hopes of getting a lenient sentence.

Levine was a member of both the health facilities board and another board that decided which money management firms got allocations from the $40 billion fund that pays retired teachers' pensions.

Duffy's questions Thursday were designed to suggest Rezko did not order Thomas Beck, then the chairman of the health facilities board, to push approval of the Crystal Lake project through the board.

Levine acknowledged FBI tapes of phone conversations in which Beck repeatedly said he did not want even to bring up the Crystal Lake proposal at the April board meeting because it was too badly flawed.

But Levine said that at some point in the two days before the board met, Beck had obviously spoken with Rezko and done an about-face. Levine said he remembered seeing somewhere the transcript of a phone conversation between himself and Beck in which Beck said that his position had changed.

Duffy challenged him to name any conversation in which Beck had made such a statement to him and they spent more than an hour going through transcripts of FBI wiretap tapes, trying to find the call in question.

But such a transcript didn't turn up and prosecutors sat by silently as the search went on.

Levine has testified that he believes he would have been sent to federal prison for the rest of his life if he had fought the charges against him. He has pleaded guilty and taken the stand as the government's star witness in hopes of getting a lenient 5 1/2-year sentence as a reward.

On Thursday, he seemed to be struggling to make the transcripts that do exist match his testimony that Rezko had ordered Beck to approve the Crystal Lake project.

At one point, he directed attention to a phone conversation between himself and the contractor who was to build the hospital once board approval was secured.

"We're fine," he is heard telling the contractor, Jacob Kieferbaum. He said that represented his assurance of a favorable vote by the board.

"That is an obvious statement that Mr. Kieferbaum understood and I understood," Levine insisted. But Duffy scoffed at that answer.

"I'm not interested in your interpretation," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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