Feb. 29, 2008— -- With the corruption trial of one of Sen. Barack Obama's longtime friends and supporters set to begin Monday in Chicago, Ill., reform watchdogs say it will reveal the "cesspool" of Illinois politics in which Obama came of age and has said little about in his campaign for president.
"We have a sick political culture," said Jay Stewart, the executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, "and that's the environment that Barack Obama came from."
Stewart says he does not understand why Obama has lectured others about corruption in Washington and Kenya but "been noticeably silent on the issue of corruption here in his home state, including at this point, mostly Democratic politicians."
There was no immediate comment from the Obama campaign.
The trial Monday involves federal charges of bribery and extortion against Tony Rezko, a real estate developer who became known in Illinois politics as a behind-the-scenes operator and fixer.
While Obama is not considered a target of the Rezko investigation, Stewart says it will shed light on a man who was pivotal to Obama's political career.
"This wasn't just some guy who wrote a check once for Barack Obama, it's someone who was an early supporter and had a personal relationship with Sen. Obama for quite some time," Stewart said.
Indeed, even after he was elected to the United States Senate, Obama involved Rezko in a land deal that enabled the senator to buy his current home on Chicago's South Side.
Obama has since called his decision to involve Rezko "a bone-headed mistake."
"Tony Rezko is all that is wrong with the old kind of politics or any kind of politics," said the Better Government Association's Stewart.
The Rezko trial will focus on Rezko's alleged role in steering Illinois state contracts in exchange for kickbacks and political contributions to Rezko friends.
The most damning examples cited by prosecutors involve Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but several of the contributions were directed to Obama's 2004 Senate campaign.
A motion filed by federal prosecutors identifies two instances when Rezko directed contributions to an unnamed "political candidate" who has since been identified by Chicago newspapers as Obama.
The Obama campaign says it has donated to charity some $160,000 that can be traced to Rezko or others involved in the corruption investigation.
In his campaign for president, Obama has railed against people like Rezko.
"If you are ready for change, then we can go ahead and tell the lobbyists and the fat cats that their days are over," he said in a speech last month in Akron, Ohio.
The Better Government Association's Stewart says Illinois politics is the opposite of the sentiments Obama now praises.
"That's a noble version he is describing. He is not talking about Illinois when he does that," said Stewart, who acknowledges Obama was "a cut above" most state legislators and reliably supported ethics legislation.
"I don't begrudge him for speaking out on it (corruption) in Washington or Kenya. If it's appropriate, you should say it. To say it's appropriate in Illinois is a huge understatement," Stewart said.
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