CHICAGO — A former top fundraiser for Rod Blagojevich was sentenced Tuesday to 10 1/2 years in prison for pressuring businesses for millions in kickbacks, an unusually stiff penalty that could portend a tough day for the former governor when he is sentenced for his own corruption convictions.
Antoin "Tony" Rezko spent 3 1/2 years in custody awaiting sentencing on his 2008 convictions for fraud, money laundering and plotting to squeeze more than $7 million in kickbacks from companies that wanted to do business with the state during Blagojevich's tenure. He will get credit for time served and will serve 85 percent of his total sentence.
Attorneys for the former Chicago real estate developer and fast-food entrepreneur had asked that he be set free, saying he had served more time than others convicted as part of the federal investigation of Blagojevich.
But U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve told Rezko his "selfish and corrupt actions" had damaged the trust people have in their government and cited his repeated lies about his role in the schemes.
"You defrauded the people of Illinois, you engaged in extensive corruption throughout the state of Illinois," the judge said, adding that she hoped other politicians would take note of the penalty for corruption.
"This sentence must send a message that enough is enough; corruption in Illinois state government has got to stop," she said.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald called Rezko's sentence "stiff and appropriate." He said it is unusual to see such a long sentence for corruption and said it appeared they are getting longer.
"We hope that any person out there – public official or conspiring with a public official – stands up and takes notice that there are very serious consequences to corruption," he said.
He would not say what he thought Rezko's penalty might mean for Blagojevich's sentence, but "maybe part of the message is ... don't come in here and just say you felt sorry after you get caught."
The former governor is set to be sentenced by a different judge next month on his conviction earlier this year on charges that included trying to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. He has been expected to get around 10 years.
The fact that Blagojevich was the public official, while Rezko was a private citizen, and that he lied while testifying in his own defense "could have a dramatic effect" on his sentence, said former Assistant U.S. District Attorney Joel Levin.
"You want a sentence to be imposed proportionate to culpability, so I do think it is a fair consideration to look at what (Rezko) got in terms of what Blagojevich gets," Levin said. "I think it's hard to overstate the significance of someone being a public official and having that duty to public."
Defense attorney Joe Duffy called the sentence disappointing but said he was not sure yet about appealing. He complained that others involved in the schemes have gotten lesser sentences.
"We think this sentence is harsh. I understand why the judge wants to send a message, and a message should be sent to the community," he said, but added that the message and punishment "should go to the public officials who have abused the public trust."
A gaunt Rezko, shackled at the ankles and bearing little resemblance to the formerly robust millionaire, asked St. Eve for mercy and apologized to the court, his friends and family.
"I deeply regret my conduct," he said. "I take full responsibility for my actions."
Rezko, 56, told the judge his brother, sister and favorite cousin died during his incarceration, and no punishment could be greater than the guilt he feels for not being with them.
Duffy also told the judge that Rezko was broke, though noted his previous anonymous contributions to his church, his participation on charity boards and his financial support to relatives.
The government countered that his generosity came at taxpayers' expense as he schemed to put the state up for sale. Prosecutor Chris Niewoehner again described Rezko standing before Blagojevich and other confidants at a chalkboard, diagramming various scams.
During Rezko's trial, prosecutors said he raised over $1 million for Blagojevich and got so much clout in return he could control two powerful state boards. They accused him of plotting to squeeze payoffs from money management firms that sought to invest the assets of the $40 billion state Teachers Retirement System and said he plotted to get a $1.5 million bribe from a contractor who sought state approval to build a hospital.
Rezko also was a political fundraiser for Obama during his campaigns for Illinois senator, though not for his presidential campaign. Obama has not been accused of wrongdoing in the case, but his relationship with Rezko became an issue during the 2008 election.
Rezko's sentencing was delayed after he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors investigating Blagojevich and others. He also offered to testify at the corruption trials of Blagojevich and millionaire businessman William Cellini, who was convicted Nov. 1 of conspiring with Rezko and others to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby."
But prosecutors said he ultimately did not provide any useful information, and they concluded that Rezko's persistent lies would have made him a vulnerable, ineffective witness. They also noted that he did not agree to cooperate until after his conviction, and his lack of credibility hurt their ability to bring tougher charges against some others.
Government watchdog groups said they hoped Rezko's punishment is only a start.
"This sentence and what is likely to be a similarly harsh sentence for ex-Gov. Blagojevich should represent the strongest one-two punch we've ever seen to would-be corrupters of our government," said Andy Shaw, president and CEO of the Better Government Association.
Brian Gladstein, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said the sentence shows, "we have a court system that is now holding these people accountable that no matter how much power you have or what position you are, you are not untouchable."