COLUMBIA, S.C. — For the second day in a row, White House hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has prodded chief rival Sen. Barack Obama about his relationship with a former career political patron and friend, Tony Rezko, who is facing a Feb. 25 federal criminal trial in Chicago on public corruption and fraud charges involving state of Illinois teacher pension funds.
On Tuesday, the Clinton campaign, in a memo, said Obama “has thus far failed to return all contributions associated with Mr. Rezko, which included money that was given through straw donors or obtained from Illinois taxpayers.”
Clinton was referring to political donations Rezko solicited, or bundled, for Obama’s U.S. Senate — not presidential — campaign fund.
During Monday’s Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach — in advance of Saturday’s South Carolina primary — Clinton asked Obama about legal work he did for “your contributor, Rezko, in his slum landlord business in inner city Chicago.”
That was a reference to a Sun-Times investigation that revealed Obama clocked five hours of legal chores for Rezko, but more centrally, took political donations from Rezko even as Rezko’s low-income housing empire was collapsing.
For months, the Clinton campaign figured that the national press would be more interested in Obama’s dealings with Rezko, an insider wheeler-dealer under indictment who, with his wife, played a role in Obama and his wife, Michelle, being able to buy their large South Side home.
Clinton gave back $850,000
In part, the Clinton team figured Rezko would become more of a campaign storyline because the Clintons rarely caught a break when it came to reporting about anything even remotely controversial about their lives.
Clinton returned nearly $850,000 when it was revealed that one of her presidential bundlers, Norman Hsu, was on the lam from criminal charges and may have laundered campaign donations through straw donors.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said Clinton’s call for Obama to scrub his list for Rezko money “takes a lot of moxie” coming from someone who had to give back $850,000 in Hsu’s bundled donations. Asked if more Rezko money would be rejected, Burton said, “we are constantly reviewing our contributions.”
Last weekend, the Sun-Times broke a story that Obama was the unnamed “political candidate” who received a $10,000 contribution for his 2004 U.S. Senate run from a person who allegedly got the money through a Rezko-connected scheme. Also, Rezko may have improperly used straw donors to funnel Senate campaign cash to Obama.
After the story ran, the Obama campaign Saturday announced a $40,000 charitable donation in Rezko-related money. Earlier, the Senate fund donated $44,000 in Rezko-connected cash. The Sun-Times estimates Rezko raised at least $168,000. However, the extent of Rezko’s help in raising Senate money for Obama isn’t known.
There are indications that Clinton and her allies will continue to press Obama on Rezko, especially as the Feb. 5 votes are looming in 22 states and Rezko’s trial is near. Meanwhile, Rezko hovers as an issue for Obama if he gets the nomination.
For weeks now, the Republican National Committee has been circulating Rezko clips.