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Tony Rezko Sentence Should Send A Message To Corrupt Public Officials, Prosecutors Say

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Antoin "Tony" Rezko, left, and Stuart Levine, right, both shown leaving Chicago's federal building after court appearances. According to a federal criminal complaint Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008, against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the governor schemed with Rezko, Stuart Levine and others to get financial benefits for himself and his campaign committee. (AP Photo) | AP

CHICAGO — Prosecutors say the harsh 10 1/2-year prison sentence handed to a former fundraiser for ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich should send a message about public corruption: Expect no mercy unless you quickly fess up and cooperate with authorities.

Tony Rezko learned that lesson too late, they said, while several others involved in schemes to squeeze kickbacks from companies wanting state business, among other misconduct, told all and likely will get lighter sentences.

"We're trying to send a deterrent message to people not to commit the crimes, but we're also trying to send a message that if people have done wrong, that they wake up, smell the coffee and work with us," U.S. Attorney Pat Fitzgerald said after Rezko's sentencing.

Blagojevich and a handful of defendants with corruption cases related to his have yet to be sentenced. The difference in how much time they receive likely will depend on their level of culpability and the seriousness of their crimes, in addition to how early – and often – they cooperated with the government.

Rezko's sentence was unusually stiff in an Illinois corruption case, especially for a private citizen. He didn't begin cooperating with the government until after his 2008 conviction, and he was never called to testify in any case amid concerns about his credibility. Prosecutors said Tuesday that Rezko lied to them repeatedly in their dealings with him.

Still, things could have gone worse for him at sentencing, Fitzgerald said.

"We gave (Rezko) credit for what he did do, and he did get a significant break off what he would have gotten otherwise," he said. "The moral of the story is we want to encourage ... prompt and full and honest cooperation."

Rezko spent three and a half years in custody awaiting sentencing on his 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.

Before sentencing Tuesday, Rezko defense attorney Joe Duffy complained that his client had already served more time than some other high-profile defendants were scheduled to receive under plea deals with the government.

Prosecutors and Judge Amy St. Eve countered that those defendants had cooperated early and in multiple cases. Stuart Levine, who could receive five and a half years in prison under a plea agreement, was a central witness in the cases against Rezko and political powerbroker William Cellini, who was convicted earlier this month for conspiring to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby."

Levine has pleaded guilty to mail fraud and money laundering as part of the scheme with Rezko to squeeze kickbacks. Prosecutor Chris Niewoehner said in urging a lengthy sentence for Rezko that while Levine and Rezko had similar levels of culpability, they had far different levels of cooperation.

"Mr. Rezko's cooperation is modest and minimal," Niewoehner said. "Mr. Levine's is dramatic. I mean, he made cases."

Prosecutors sought 11 to 15 years for Rezko and will make their recommendation for Blagojevich next week. Shorter sentences have been sought for other key players in the sweeping corruption cases, including former Blagojevich chief of staff Lon Monk, who pleaded guilty in October 2009 to one count of wire fraud for attempting to squeeze a racetrack owner for a $100,000 campaign contribution. He faced 37 to 46 months in prison but could get 24 months because he cooperated.

Prosecutors said Rezko has himself to blame for Monk's relatively light sentence.

"The reason (Monk) wasn't sentenced for more of his conduct is Mr. Rezko damaged himself as a witness," Fitzgerald said. "So had Mr. Rezko been more honest and more forthcoming, Mr. Monk might have been charged differently and had a different deal."

But even plea deals can have pitfalls, and Rezko's case highlights a big one: getting caught lying to the government, said Terry Sullivan, a Chicago attorney and former prosecutor.

"It's probably very true that (Rezko) had gone through his life wheeling and dealing and being on top and playing financial games," Sullivan said. "He thought he could do it with his own attorney and with the federal government."

"Whatever Rezko had to give, it was too little too late," Sullivan said.

Longtime political observer and consultant Don Rose said he thinks Rezko's sentence "is a very strong signal."

"Whether it's going to end corruption or not is something else," he said. "Maybe not any more than the death penalty helped end murders."

Others who have yet to be sentenced:

_Ali Ata, former executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority, who prosecutors called in the first Blagojevich trial. He's pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about Rezko's role in getting him his state job. Under advisory sentencing guidelines, Ata could go to prison for as much as 18 months. But under a plea agreement with prosecutors, he might get even less than the 12-month minimum for his cooperation.

_Former Blagojevich chief of staff John Harris testified for the government in both Blagojevich trials after pleading guilty to one count of wire fraud. Prosecutors have promised to urge a maximum 35-month term.

_Blagojevich and Cellini, neither of whom cooperated with prosecutors.


Associated Press reporter Tammy Webber contributed to this report.