Although it did not go unreported, convicted Chicago political influencer Tony Rezko’s 10-year prison sentence was treated as an afterthought during the short Thanksgiving workweek. Also an afterthought: the amazing facility with which President Obama has completely escaped Rezko’s orbit in the liberal mainstream media’s standard narrative.From the coverage he gets now, you would hardly know that Rezko dined with the current president of the United States on occasion, and even hosted him at his vacation home.You might forget that Rezko was one of Obama’s most important donors. Surely, no one remembers that Obama used his influence as a public official to help Rezko obtain $14 million in local taxpayers’ money to build a residence for senior citizens. The building wasn’t even in his state Senate district.Rezko’s trial focused on how he had corrupted officials overseeing the pension system for many Illinois teachers. But he was really a developer. He made a fortune from government subsidies for low-income housing. He was always looking for help from politicians.
Rezko donated to both parties, but there were a few lawmakers for whom he was especially solicitous. One was Obama, whom he had first met in the early 1990s. But more on that in a minute.
Another was a state representative named Rod Blagojevich — later a congressman, governor of Illinois and soon-to-be federal prisoner. Over the years, Rezko gave him $118,000 and bundled more than $1.4 million on his behalf.
According to court documents, he hired Patti Blagojevich to a job that required neither her presence nor, apparently, any actual work. Rezko also regularly passed envelopes stuffed with cash to Blagojevich’s chief of staff.
Blagojevich rewarded Rezko by appointing his cronies to key positions (such as pension boards), allowing Rezko to maximize the influence he later used to extort millions from those doing business with the state.
There were small favors, too. At one point, Blagojevich even got the University of Illinois to reverse its decision to reject one of Rezko’s relatives for admission.
Blagojevich’s story demonstrates the kind of friend Rezko was. He was generous, and he expected a lot in return.
Rezko also cultivated Obama, right from the beginning of his political career. He provided the seed money for Obama’s first run for office. He bundled over a quarter-million dollars for Obama’s many campaigns, before he was finally indicted.
In 2008, the talk was all about a curious land purchase Rezko made through his wife, which smoothed the way for Obama to buy a beautiful home next door.
Rezko shared with Obama a keen interest in low-income housing policy. Whatever his motives, the state senator wrote those letters for Rezko. He also involved himself in several measures that stood to benefit Rezko and other big real estate players who were regular contributors to his campaigns — and in some cases personal friends, too.
There were tax credits, tax abatements, rent subsidies and subsidies for building rehabs. There was even a bill requiring Illinois municipalities to build more “affordable” housing, which became law. Obama voted for that one, then sponsored a bill to get it implemented more quickly.
This is not the sordid stuff of Blagojevich-like corruption, but that’s setting a pretty low bar. The Obama-Rezko love affair provided mutual benefits whose costs were ultimately borne by the taxpayers.
Crony capitalism is not always illegal. Rezko’s career serves as a reminder that the right kind of crook — one with more restraint and fewer gambling debts than he — can do pretty well for himself without passing envelopes full of used greenbacks, hiring governors’ wives to dummy jobs, or shaking down investment firms.
Maybe Rezko should have listened to the wise words of a famous Nobel laureate: “At a certain point, you’ve made enough money.”
David Freddoso is The Examiner’s online opinion editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.