Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Witness: Fundraiser Spoke of Plan to Fire US Attorney

Witness: Fundraiser Spoke of Plan to Fire US Attorney

By Mike Robinson

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Chicago - A government witness testified Monday that a prominent political fundraiser for the governor told him three years ago that Chicago's chief federal prosecutor would be fired and replaced by someone chosen by then-U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Restaurant owner Elie Maloof testified that Antoin "Tony" Rezko told him that the person picked to replace Patrick J. Fitzgerald as U.S. attorney in Chicago would end a federal investigation into corruption under Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"The federal prosecutor would no longer be the federal prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald would be eliminated," Maloof said at Rezko's fraud trial.

Prosecutors said last week that former Illinois Finance Authority executive director Ali Ata, who is set to take the witness stand as early as Thursday, will testify Rezko told him of a plan to replace Fitzgerald.

Prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Amy J. St. Eve that Ata would say he talked with Rezko about such efforts on the part of Springfield lobbyist Robert Kjellander and former presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Kjellander denied he had ever discussed such a thing. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said his client does not remember Kjellander ever talking to him about Fitzgerald and is certain he never spoke to anyone at the White House about removing Fitzgerald.

U.S. attorneys are nominated by the president but traditionally are chosen by the senior senator of the president's party.

Maloof's testimony Monday was the first time Hastert's name came up during Rezko's trial.

An aide to Hastert, Brad Hahn, said Hastert had never heard anything about a plan to dismiss Fitzgerald. He said the testimony was puzzling.

"We can't begin to speculate on where this comes from or what is being suggested," Hahn said.

Rezko, 52, is charged with scheming to split a $1.5 million bribe from a contractor who wanted state permission to build a hospital in the McHenry County suburb of Crystal Lake.

He is also charged with scheming to pressure kickbacks out of firms that sought to do business with a state teachers pension fund.

Rezko denies taking part in such a scheme.

Prosecutors say he raised enormous sums for Blagojevich's campaign and as a result gained the political clout to manipulate big-money decisions on hospital construction and which firms were allowed to do business with the pension fund. Blagojevich is not charged with wrongdoing.

The trial got under way March 3 and the prosecution case is now in its final stages. The court is giving the jury days off on Tuesday and Wednesday and the government tentative plans to rest early next week.

Since taking over as U.S. attorney in September 2001, Fitzgerald has launched a vigorous attack on corruption, sending former Gov. George Ryan and a number of other political insiders to federal prison.

Last year, the firings of several U.S. attorneys around the country provoked a backlash on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers questioned whether the moves were politically motivated. Alberto Gonzales later resigned as attorney general.

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