Long known as the “political fixer,” who was friends with a politically young Barack Obama, Tony Rezko once grabbed headlines in a presidential campaign. At the same time in Illinois, Rezko’s name was synonymous with a federal investigation into former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But since Rezko volunteered to go jail after his 2008 conviction, he’s settled in as not much more than a footnote in both politics and corruption.
That’s partly because the investigation into Blagojevich exploded after Rezko’s trial, taking a new turn involving the sale of President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat – conduct that happened when Rezko was already behind bars.
However, even though he cooperated with federal authorities after his conviction on 16 of 24 counts of corruption under Blagojevich’s tenure as governor, Rezko was never used as a witness in subsequent criminal cases.
It’s left the once high-profile defendant, set to be sentenced on Tuesday in Chicago federal court, in a precarious position.
Rezko volunteered to go to jail immediately, volunteered to cooperate and volunteered to delay his sentencing so he could be called as a witness at both of Blagojevich’s trials as well as the trial of Springfield power broker William Cellini, according to his lawyers.
Being behind bars – but not sentenced – meant he endured more oppressive prison conditions than most white collar criminals who are usually sentenced then shipped off to prison camps, his lawyers said.
But in the end, the government never called him to the witness stand. While Rezko’s lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve. to sentence him to time served, the government has requested a stiff penalty: 11 to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors argue Rezko’s cooperation wasn’t that helpful, that he lied to them in debriefing sessions and that their proposed penalty would cover a second criminal case before a different judge involving loan fraud.
“Rezko’s cooperation was heavily tainted by the timing of when he decided to cooperate, by his repeated lies to judges, and by his pervasive and sustained lies made to the government over the first several months of his purported cooperation with the government,” prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.
Because he was in talks with federal authorities, Rezko served about nine months in the most restrictive jail conditions at the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center – a Special Housing Unit called the “SHU” where “high-risk” inmates – including accused terrorists and currently, a suspected high-ranking leader of a violent Mexican drug cartel — are held.
It’s also a place where the jail houses high-profile defendants or those cooperating, under the argument that it’s for their own protection.
Legal observers say a judge can credit defendants for harsher conditions – as well as for their cooperation, even if the prosecution doesn’t use the witness at trial.
“A lot of courts over the years have thought about and considered the conditions of confinement,” during sentencing, defense lawyer Patrick Cotter said.
Scott Fawell, onetime chief of staff of convicted ex-Gov. George Ryan, said time in the SHU should not be shrugged off. Fawell once spent two nights there and pleaded with prison officials to allow him into general population.
“I said: ‘I’ll sign anything, just get me out of here,’” Fawell said in an interview. There’s no TV, no card-playing, no interaction with other inmates, he said.
“You can’t see outside,” he said. “You have to stick your hand-cuffed hands through a slot to get food.”
After complaining about the conditions, Rezko was moved to a county jail in Wisconsin where he continued his cooperation. But its rules meant he hasn’t had any physical contact with family and isn’t allowed outdoors.
He’s lost more than 80 pounds, his lawyers say.
“He has not enjoyed a breath of fresh air or a ray of sunlight for nearly three and a half years, and he has not been allowed to hug his wife or daughter since he left the MCC nearly three years ago,” his lawyers wrote.
The government’s recommendation is significantly more steep than the roughly five and a half years that serial conman and drug abuser Stuart Levine faces. Levine is accused of conspiring with Rezko during Blagojevich’s administrations to win kickbacks from state deals.
“The general rule of thumb is if someone cooperates after he’s convicted at trial, his credibility is pretty much shot,” said federal defense lawyer Lawrence Beaumont. “His motive for his cooperation is not so much for telling the truth than for getting a deal.”
Rezko’s lawyers said his talks with the government helped spur others to cooperate against Blagojevich, including onetime chief of staff Lon Monk, who was a major witness in the ex-governor’s trial.
Beaumont said St. Eve can credit Rezko for cooperation – even though he wasn’t called at trial.
“The court can reward him for that and (possibly) give him a lesser sentence, without the government supporting that move,” Beaumont said.