Alexi Giannoulias Touts Independence, Says Obama's Heavy Healthcare Focus Was A Mistake

10/18/2010 09:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CHICAGO — Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias describes himself as someone with the judgment and guts to make his own decisions, even if it means standing up to people with more experience. But when pressed Monday on decisions that turned into political liabilities, Giannoulias often passed the buck.

His family bank doing business with criminals? Someone else handled that, Giannoulias explained in an interview with The Associated Press, and the loans met all the technical requirements. And the loan to shady political insider Antoin "Tony" Rezko? Giannoulias said he wasn't handling loans by that point and no one at his bank asked his opinion.

What about his state treasurer's office putting money into a troubled investment fund? That's what the financial experts assured him was the best move, Giannoulias said.

Still, the 34-year-old Chicago Democrat insisted he would be an independent voice if elected to the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.

In an hour-long interview with the AP, Giannoulias said he has been willing to disagree with party leaders and take politically risky positions. As examples, he offered his support for same-sex marriage and for a mosque and Islamic cultural center near the site of the New York City terrorist attacks.

"Maybe it's (being) youthful. Maybe it's being bold and being willing to make tough decisions," Giannoulias said. "I think, quite frankly, now more than ever we need that."

He also said Obama made a mistake by focusing so heavily on overhauling health care during the past two years, after underestimating the Republican opposition he would face after being elected president.

Giannoulias refused to publicly repeat his campaign's accusation that Republican opponent Mark Kirk is a liar. In fact, Giannoulias said the longtime congressman isn't a bad guy.

He also said he remains "very, very proud" of Broadway Bank, which was founded by his father. In April, federal regulators shut down the bank as insolvent.

The Chicago Tribune has reported the bank lent about $27 million to convicted felons Michael "Jaws" Giorango and Demitri Stavropoulos, with much of that activity coming after Giannoulias became an executive at the bank. The bank also did business with Rezko, even after he was accused of federal crimes related to corruption under ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The Kirk campaign has made the bank a major issue and endlessly calls Giannoulias a "failed mob banker."

Kirk also has criticized Giannoulias, the state treasurer, over "Bright Start," a college-savings program that lost about $150 million in one of its investment options. Giannoulias recovered about half of that from the firm overseeing the investments.

Giannoulias both defended the loans made by his family's bank and distanced himself from them.

He said banks don't do criminal background checks on people they do business with, and the loans to Giorango and Stavropoulos were approved because they met all the technical requirements. But he also said the bank should never have been involved with those people and would not have done business with them if their criminal records had been known.

Giannoulias did not explain why the bank lent them more money even after learning the two men were linked to gambling and prostitution. Giannoulias acknowledged he "probably" met with Giorango on a trip to Miami to inspect property involved in a loan application.

Where Giannoulias did acknowledge making a mistake was in his handling of the issue when he ran for treasurer four years ago. He said if he had fully answered all questions then, it might not be a campaign issue now.

"I should have taken them more seriously," he said.

Giannoulias also said he did his best to protect families that invested money in Bright Start. He said – and outside financial experts have confirmed – that Illinois was one of the first states to call attention to problems in the fund handled by OppenheimerFunds. Still, his office stuck with the fund for months after spotting warning signs.

"We made the decision based on the advice of experts," he said.

The "Core Plus" fund was billed to investors as a safe, conservative way to save for college. Giannoulias ducked questions about whether he should have warned the public of concerns the fund might not be so safe after all.

"Our job was to voice our concerns to Oppenheimer," he said.

The Giannoulias campaign frequently criticizes Kirk for making false or exaggerated claims about his accomplishments in the Navy Reserve. Giannoulias' ads flatly accuse Kirk of lying.

But Giannoulias wouldn't use such blunt language in the interview Monday, preferring to accuse Kirk of "untruths" instead of calling his opponent a liar.

"When you don't tell the truth, what does that make you?" Giannoulias asked without answering his own question.