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Rezko Trial Opens in Chicago

By Kari Lydersen
CHICAGO -- An eighth grade teacher, a guitar-playing MBA student who doesn’'t read newspapers and a “Judge Judy” aficionado were among the first group of 26 jurors questioned by U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve for Chicago political fundraiser Antoin “"Tony"” Rezko'’s trial on charges of attempted extortion and money laundering. Rezko pled not guilty, and has been held in jail since his bail was revoked in January.

St. Eve stressed the likely length and heavy media coverage of the trial in her questions to jurors, focusing on whether their employers will pay them for the duration, whether medical problems might interfere with service and, in one case, whether a planned trip to Cancun could be rescheduled.

Most potential jurors said they had not read or seen news of the Rezko case since filling out lengthy juror questionnaires in January --– a measure St. Eve took to expedite jury selection. This confirmed her earlier statement to attorneys that they might be surprised to learn how many people haven'’t heard of the high-profile defendant, who has been linked to Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama.

Blagojevich, dubbed “Public official A” in pretrial filings, has denied prosecutors’ allegations that he discussed and endorsed the idea of rewarding campaign contributors with state contracts and other perks. Obama, expected only to be a footnote in the trial, returned campaign donations from Rezko and donors allegedly acting as straw men for Rezko. Previously known as a friend of Rezko’s, Obama drew fire for a real estate deal involving their adjacent properties.

Neither Blagojevich nor Obama were among the more than 40 names of potential witnesses St. Eve read to jurors before individual questioning. That list did include suburban businessman Stuart Levine, a former member of two state boards who is expected to be the governmentÂ’s star witness. Levine pled guilty to collaborating with Rezko to extort almost $6 million in pay-to-play schemes targeting companies aiming to do business with the state. The defense will likely refer to LevineÂ’s alleged heavy use of illegal drugs. The list also included Susan Lichtenstein, a former general counsel for Blagojevich, and Democratic fundraiser Joseph Cari.

Rezko occasionally toyed with his glasses and pen with an impassive expression as questioning proceeded. A handful of family members and about 20 journalists sat in the small courtroom.

The first group of six potential jurors reported minor brushes with the law for drug and alcohol-related crimes, but said these incidents wouldnÂ’'t influence their ability to be impartial, as did a woman whose son served 12 years in prison for murder.

St. EveÂ’s's questions often sounded more like cocktail party conversation than preparation for a trial -- friendly inquiries as to whether people liked their jobs, getting the teacherÂ’'s opinion on the educational system and congratulating a woman on her recent marriage.

She thanked potential jurors for their hard work filling out the time-consuming jury questionnaires, and noted that the forms revealed “CSI” to be the pool'’s favorite TV show. To the man whose main hobbies were sleeping and watching TV court shows, she said, “"As you know, this might be different than those judge shows.”"

By Web Politics Editor  |  March 3, 2008; 6:13 PM ET
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