Image: Antoin "Tony" Rezko.
Nam Y. Huh  /  AP file
Chicago real estate developer and fast-food magnate Antoin "Tony" Rezko leaves federal court in Chicago on Oct. 19, 2006.
By
updated 3/11/2008 6:40:33 AM ET 2008-03-11T10:40:33

An e-mail message made public on Monday in the fraud trial of Antoin Rezko, a businessman and political contributor, brought attention to Senator Barack Obama’s role in discussions involving a state health planning board that Mr. Rezko is accused of improperly influencing.

The message indicated that Mr. Obama, now a Democratic presidential candidate, and other top Illinois politicians consulted in 2003 on legislation to keep the board, which approved the construction of health facilities, from expiring under sunset provisions in state law.

The vaguely worded message also seemed to raise the possibility that Mr. Obama, who at the time was chairman of the Illinois Senate’s health committee, had been involved in recommending candidates for the board.

Mr. Rezko is accused of using his influence in state government to stack the board with associates, including some who made political contributions to Mr. Obama and other top Illinois politicians, and of seeking a bribe on a hospital project.

But David Wilhelm, a former campaign adviser to Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois who asked that the e-mail message be written, said in an interview that he had never talked about the appointment process to Mr. Obama. Mr. Obama has said he had nothing to do with Mr. Rezko’s activities with the board.

Mr. Obama has not been accused of any wrongdoing, and his name is expected to come up only tangentially during the trial. But given his tight race against Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, each mention of Mr. Obama’s name is being closely watched.

In the e-mail message, Matthew Pickering, who worked for Mr. Wilhelm, told Susan Lichtenstein, who was then Governor Blagojevich’s general counsel, that he was writing at the behest of Mr. Wilhelm, who is also a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Mr. Pickering said he and Mr. Wilhelm had “worked closely” over six months with several state legislators to extend the life of the health facilities board. He then listed Democratic and Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, including Mr. Obama.

Mr. Pickering’s message went on to suggest four candidates to serve on the board, stating that “our attached recommendations reflect that involvement” with the political leaders.

The trial is providing a look into political influence in the administration of Mr. Blagojevich, who also has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Mr. Rezko’s lawyers introduced the e-mail message in an effort to show that a wide range of the state’s political leaders, and not just Mr. Rezko, were involved in decisions involving the health board.

Campaign finance records show that at least three Rezko associates who sat on the hospital board made substantial donations to Mr. Blagojevich and to Mr. Obama in 2003 and 2004.

Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Bill Burton, has said the senator knew nothing about those appointments, and he repeated that last night. Mr. Obama has given the donations from the three Rezko associates to charity.

Mr. Wilhelm, who is supporting Mr. Obama for president, said in the interview that there was “never a discussion between Barack Obama and me or anyone who worked for me about candidates for this board.” Mr. Wilhelm said he viewed the e-mail message as “a nonstory.

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times

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