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posted: 7/11/2010 12:01 AM

Feds prepare to rest Blago case without calling Rezko

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  • Considered a "toxic" witness, Tony Rezko is unlikely to take the stand against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, experts say.

    Considered a "toxic" witness, Tony Rezko is unlikely to take the stand against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, experts say.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer


Prosecutors intend to rest their case against former Gov. Rod Blagojevich this week, seemingly leaving no room for key figures like Tony Rezko and Stuart Levine to testify.

And that's just how the prosecution seems to want it.

The omissions in the government lawyers' case against Rod Blagojevich and his brother Robert tell almost as much as the witnesses they did put on the stand.

Take Rezko, a key figure in the government's "proffer" laying out its case against the former governor. He was one of Gov. Blagojevich's "kitchen cabinet" of top advisers, and authorities say Rezko, along with Chris Kelly and Alonzo Monk, schemed to make money from Blagojevich's actions as governor and divide it up when he left office, with Rezko serving as bag man.

That's all according to Monk's testimony. Kelly pleaded guilty, like Monk, to corruption charges, but committed suicide last year before he could be called to testify. Only Rezko could corroborate Monk's story.

Rezko fought the charges against him, only to be convicted on 16 of 24 counts two years ago. More recently, he made moves to change his plea and his sentencing was postponed indefinitely, raising the possibility he was helping with the prosecution case and might even take the stand. Yet, he couldn't change the contents of a letter he wrote to his trial judge before his conviction:

"The prosecutors have been overzealous in pursuing a crime that never happened. They are pressuring me to tell them the 'wrong' things that I supposedly know about Gov. Blagojevich and Sen. Obama. I have never been party to any wrongdoing that involved the governor or the senator. I will never fabricate lies about anyone else for selfish purposes."

That letter would no doubt be produced by defense lawyers if Rezko were called to the stand. The defense team already has made abundant issue about Hinsdale racetrack owner John Johnston and Willowbrook asphalt executive Gerald Krozel testifying with immunity, and about Monk and fundraiser Joseph Cari, among others, testifying under duress while awaiting favorable sentencing in their cases.

Even Blagojevich's trial judge, James Zagel, said late last month that he considered Rezko a toxic witness who would damage whichever side chose to call him, and that he therefore didn't expect him to be called.

"Rezko scares the prosecutors," said Andrew Stoltmann, a Barrington Hills attorney who's been following the case. "He is a wild card, and prosecutors tend to be scared away from wild cards."

The same would seem to be true of Levine, a key witness against Rezko, but who proved embarrassing to the prosecution with his tales on the stand of marathon drug sessions in hotels with other men.

Levine pleaded guilty to using his position on the boards of the state's Teachers Retirement System and Health Facilities Planning Board to generate millions in kickbacks.

"Rezko and Levine are both wild cards," said Richard Kling of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. "You really have no idea what they're going to say."

What prosecutors seem to be saying most clearly with their omission in the Blagojevich trial is that they don't need them to make the case.

"If anything," Stoltmann said of Rezko, "I think by not calling him the prosecutors are sending a sign that they are feeling pretty confident of what they have proven at trial."

The question is what will jurors make of the omissions. Monk let slip on the stand that Kelly had "passed away," but jurors have been kept from the knowledge he committed suicide. What they'll make of Rezko's absence, after he's been cited so frequently by both prosecutors and defense attorneys, is an issue as well.

Will jurors read into the omissions? "They're not supposed to," Kling said. "The judge is going to say, basically, stick to the evidence."

So the prosecution is content to wind down with John Wyma, the fundraiser who was already working for them in the final days before Blagojevich's arrest in 2008. Prosecutors will almost certainly come full circle with Children's Memorial Hospital Chief Executive Officer Patrick Magoon. The allegation that both Rod Blagojevich and his brother Robert shook down a nonprofit children's hospital is considered most damaging in its appeal to jurors. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Hamilton used it to begin her opening statement in the trial, and prosecutors will most likely use it in finishing their case and presenting it to the jury.

With the prosecution resting its case, the initiative will shift to the defense ­­- which also is likely to proceed minus Rezko and Levine.

"I don't think they're going to be any more likely to be called by the defense," Kling said. "They're just as much a wild card for the defense."

Besides, the defense has already laid its cards on the table with persistent boasts that Rod and Patti Blagojevich will both be testifying.