August 25, 2008— -- Barack Obama's vice-presidential pick complicates the Democratic hopeful's efforts to distance himself from a far-reaching Chicago patronage scandal.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., brings to Obama's presidential campaign assets like foreign policy experience and a knowledge of Washington. But he also brings another tie to the Antoin "Tony" Rezko scandal, a mess that has already caused sizeable headaches for the Obama campaign.
Chicago lawyer and onetime mega-fundraiser Joseph Cari has advised Biden and his campaigns on and off since 1984, serving in posts as varied as a Senate adviser on crime to the Midwest Political Director for Biden's aborted 1987 presidential bid. In 2005 Cari helped arrange private meetings for Biden with potential supporters, as the senator explored another run for the White House. He has also worked to raise money for Biden .
Cari never attended those meetings, however. Days before they were scheduled to take place he learned he was under investigation as part of the Rezko probe and excused himself from the events, a spokesman explained Sunday.
Federal prosecutors indicted Cari in August 2005 and in September Cari cut a deal, agreeing to cooperate with the government's investigation and pleading guilty to a count of attempted extortion .
Cari admitt ed that in 2004 he helped a Rezko associate by making calls in what turned out to be a kickback scheme. The deal was an offshoot of a complex corruption scheme wrought by Antoin "Tony" Rezko , whose ties to Obama have vexed the White House hopeful . Cari has maintained he did not know the details of that scheme or any other.
Cari's sentencing is delayed while he cooperates with the investigation. He testified at Rezko's trial earlier this year, in which a jury found Rezko guilty on 16 of 24 corruption-related felony charges. Obama, who entered into a complex real estate transaction with Rezko and his wife in 2005 that appeared to aid the senator, has returned nearly $150,000 in donations he received from Rezko and his associates over the years.
Obama maintains his relationship with Rezko was "above board and legal" but has admitted bad judgment, calling his decision to involve Rezko in the home purchase "a bone-headed mistake."
The Obama campaign told the Chicago Sun-Times it had already shed donations the candidate had received from Cari as well as other figures connected to Rezko. A spokeswoman for Biden referred a reporter's questions to the Obama campaign.
"When you raise millions upon millions of dollars, you're going to end up giving back some contributions," said David Wade, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, confirming it was returning any donations from Cari. Wade noted that Cari had raised money for "many prominent elected officials."
A spokesman for Cari said Sunday that Biden knew nothing of Cari's role in the fraud scheme, and when Cari informed him in 2005 he might be under investigation, Biden cut all ties with his longtime friend.
"From the moment Joe informed Biden there was an investigation of him – that was the last time they ever talked," said Ken Jakubowski of Sirius Enterprises, a crisis communications firm representing Cari. Jakubowski, a friend of Cari's, also worked on Biden's 1988 presidential campaign.
For Cari, the saga was a fast fall from grace for a man who had spent more than two decades as a prominent figure in the Democratic Party as an adviser and fundraiser, to Biden and a host of others.
The longtime Delaware senator in particular received tremendous support from Cari, who has called Biden "a good friend" and a personal hero.
"Joe Biden went through a presidential campaign, and the thing blew up," Cari told the Illinois Legal Times in 1998 . "Joe then had a brain aneurism. He worked his way through that. More than anything I think Joe Biden wanted his reputation back. So what did he do? He got his health back and after all of this, he just went back to work. No press release -- he just started showing up at work every day.
"When you go through a life-threatening event like that, I can tell you from personal experience, when you just show up and do your job, you're a hero. I saw the absolute pain that this thing caused him and I saw the absolute class he handled it with. He didn't make excuses, he just went back to work. That tells me a lot about someone."
In addition to Biden, Cari advised or raised money for just about every Democratic White House hopeful from Jimmy Carter in 1980 to John Kerry in 2004 . His connections and fundraising prowess helped him win spots as finance co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and finance chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Even after his guilty plea, Cari's influence in Democratic circles was felt. In 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported California state treasurer Phil Angelides had aired a campaign ad accusing his primary foe of taking money from Cari, calling Cari a "corrupt Chicago businessman." At the same time, the paper reported, Angelides and his aides called Cari for fundraising help so frequently it "amounted to 'stalking,'" one of Cari's associates told the Times at the time.