June 4, 2008— -- A day after Sen. Barack Obama clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, one of his greatest political weaknesses thrust itself again into the limelight.
When a federal jury in Chicago delivered a guilty verdict on 16 of 24 felony counts for Antoin "Tony" Rezko Wednesday afternoon, it declared unequivocally that one of Obama's oldest and most generous political supporters, a man he called a "friend" for many years, was a corrupt influence-peddler.
In the Democratic primary race, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., Obama's competition, hammered him over his ties to Rezko. The Republican National Committee has already seized on the Rezko conviction to attack Obama in a new Web video released on YouTube.
Obama was not directly connected to the case against Rezko and was not implicated in the charges filed. He had a brief cameo in a January court filing as the unnamed "political candidate" whose 2004 Senate campaign had accepted money from a Rezko kickback scheme, funneled through straw donors, according to a Chicago Sun-Times account.
But for Obama, who has positioned himself as a candidate of change and clean government, the verdict is sure to resurrect questions about his past dealings with the political fixer who offered him his first job out of law school (which Obama declined), corralled donations topping $200,000 into Obama's campaigns, threw him fundraisers and even participated in a deal that enabled the Obamas to the purchase their current family home.
In a statement Wednesday evening, Obama said he was "saddened" by the verdict.
"This isn't the Tony Rezko I knew," he said, adding that the convictions "once again shine a spotlight on the need for reform." He encouraged the Illinois General Assembly to take steps to "prevent these kinds of abuses in the future."
Obama's campaign has distributed to charity about $150,000 in contributions from Rezko and individuals connected to him.
Obama's ties to Rezko ensured the trial was heavily attended by the national media. But aside from a shout-out to the senator by the defense in its opening argument, the candidate's name barely surfaced.
A week into the trial, Obama's name appeared in a 2003 memo introduced as evidence, but it did not indicate Obama was involved in any corruption.
Perhaps the most mystifying chapter of Obama's long relationship with Rezko involved the senator's 2005 home purchase, for which he first sought Rezko's opinion, and later his financial involvement. When Obama purchased the house, Rezko – publicly reported to have been under federal investigation for corruption -- purchased an adjoining lot from the same seller, who wanted to close on both properties at the same time.
Buying the house without the lot helped Obama shave $300,000 off the home's asking price.
Rezko has since told a judge that he was $50 million in debt at the time of the deal; after purchasing the lot, he re-sold the property to his wife, who sold a portion back to the Obamas, and then sold it to her husband's ex-attorney.
Obama has said the decision to involve Rezko in the deal was "bone-headed" but that everything was done legally and above-board.
While the Rezko verdict may bring some turbulence for Obama, said Illinois political observers, it is likely to more troublesome to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose involvement with Rezko was a constant theme in the trial. "This trial wasn't about Obama-Rezko, it was about Rezko-Blagojevich," said Jay Stewart of the Illinois-based Better Government Association.
But Cindy Canary of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform said any taint from ties to a figure like Rezko is part of being a politician from Chicago.
Obama has suffered not only from his connection to Rezko but also to Chicago-area Revs. Jeremiah Wright and Michael Pfleger, whose controversial comments have caused the candidate several bouts of heartburn, she noted. "They are colorful, sometimes troublesome Chicago characters, but they are part and parcel of the Chicago political culture," she said. "I'm not sure Sen. Obama or anybody out of this town could completely escape that."
After the jury returned its verdict Wednesday afternoon, Rezko surrendered to begin serving time immediately. He is slated to be sentenced Sept. 3.