Pale and thin, his legs shackled and bare forearms tightly crossed in a frigid federal courtroom, an unsmiling Tony Rezko on Tuesday looked a faded portrait of the man who stood trial before the same judge 3 ½ years ago.
“Just looking at you physically is evidence of the great fall that you have had,” U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Rezko.
At that, the pallid Rezko flushed, his eyes welling up.
But the onetime top fund-raiser to Rod Blagojevich and former friend of Barack Obama remained steady even as St. Eve handed down a 10 ½ year sentence for corruption, describing Rezko’s actions during the former governor’s tenure as “selfish and corrupt.”
“You defrauded the people of Illinois. You engaged in extensive corruption throughout the state of Illinois,” St. Eve said. “This sentence must send a message that enough is enough.”
Rezko’s daughter audibly cried out as St. Eve announced the prison term as others put hands to their mouths. Her father had earlier stolen just one glance at his wife, two sons and daughter sitting behind him in court.
Wearing a prison-issued bluish-green shirt, khaki pants and orange Croc-like shoes, Rezko intermittently sighed as St. Eve said she thought he lied when he once sent her a letter to say prosecutors were pressuring him to make up things about Blagojevich and Obama.
Rezko, 56, hasn’t been in sunlight for more than three years. His lawyers say he is bankrupt and lost 80 pounds since going to jail.
He asked St. Eve for mercy and apologized.
“I take full responsibility for my actions … There are no words to describe the pain and regret,” Rezko told St. Eve. “In the years I have been in custody, I lost my brother. I lost my sister. I lost my favorite cousin,” he said, expressing “the guilt and the sorrow I feel for not being there for them when they were dying.
“I humbly ask for God’s forgiveness and the court’s mercy.”
But St. Eve said Rezko plotted to take more than $9.6 million in kickbacks from firms seeking state business. She found it most offensive, she said, that Rezko put at risk the Teachers’ Retirement System by scheming for kickbacks with crooked TRS board member Stuart Levine in 2004.
“You put their retirements at risk for your own greed and your own thirst for power,” St. Eve said.
Rezko will be credited the 3 ½ years he’s already served since his 2008 conviction on 16 of 24 counts, including bribery, fraud and money laundering. He still must be sentenced in a loan fraud case before a different judge.
Rezko’s attorney, Joseph Duffy, called the sentence “harsh.”
“We’re obviously very disappointed,” Duffy said. “The message, I think, and the punishment should go to the public official who abused the public trust … Anything that Tony Rezko did involving the state of Illinois was done with the permission and the direction of the governor and Lon Monk.”
Monk’s plea deal calls for 24 months in prison for Blagojevich’s former chief of staff. Duffy said he found it difficult to reconcile the short term with Rezko’s.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald pointed to the prison term as “a wake-up call,” and called Rezko’s conduct “horrendous.” Rezko paid the price, he said, because he didn’t cooperate until after he lost at trial and then initially lied in debriefing sessions.
“It is harsh to go to prison, it’s harsh upon people’s families, but that is what defendants bring upon themselves,” Fitzgerald said. “To reward him as if he fully cooperated would be inappropriate … Don’t just come in here and say ‘sorry’ after you get caught.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner said Rezko’s conduct was “about as bad as it can get in a political corruption case. Illinois was for sale at the very top levels of our government.”
Rezko’s lawyers asked that he be released with time served.
The government asked St. Eve for an 11-to-15-year term.
St. Eve’s stiff sentence credits Rezko for being housed in harsher conditions than most white-collar criminals, including nine months in isolation in a downtown lockup.
As Rezko walked out of court, family members shouted: “we love you! You are the best!” Outside court, one woman called out: “That’s what an honest man deserves in this country.” After someone told her to check herself, she said: “I don’t care, put me in with him!”