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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 04/16/2008

Obama's Rezko Connection

By Michael Dobbs

Antoin Rezko and Stuart Levine.

"Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama was again drawn into Tony Rezko's corruption trial on Monday, when the prosecution's star witness placed Obama at a party for an Iraqi-born billionaire who was later barred entry to the United States."
--Chicago Sun-Times, April 15, 2008.

Proof of a meeting between Barack Obama and the Iraqi-born billionaire, Nadhmi Auchi, would be a blow for the Illinois senator's presidential campaign. Obama has repeatedly said that he cannot recollect any meeting with Auchi, a London-based businessman who is appealing a conviction for fraud in France. Auchi was a business contact of Antoin Rezko, a former Chicago developer and Obama fundraiser currently on trial for corruption.

With a fortune estimated at more than $5 billion, Auchi is one of the world's richest men. According to U.S. prosecutors, Rezko lobbied the U.S. government to get a visa for Auchi after he was banned from entering the country.

The Facts

So far this is a case of "he said, she said," or rather "he said, he said."

According to Stuart Levine, a former Rezko associate turned prosecution witness, both Barack Obama and his wife Michelle were among the guests at a April 3, 2004 party at Rezko's Chicago home for Auchi. At that time, Rezko was trying to impress Auchi with his political connections. The British billionaire would later buy part of Rezko's pizzeria business and invest $170 million in a prime piece of Chicago real estate that Rezko wanted to develop.

While acknowledging his friendship with Rezko, Obama has minimized their social dealings. Interviewed last month by the Chicago Tribune, he said that he and Rezko met for breakfast or lunch infrequently. He said that he attended a fundraising event at Rezko's home in Wilmette in 2003, but made no mention of the April 2004 party for Auchi.

On the other hand, legitimate questions have been raised about the credibility of Stuart Levine, the government's star witness in the Rezko case. The trial judge has ruled that Levine, a prominent GOP fundraiser, can be questioned about past drug use, ranging from cocaine to ecstasy to crystal meth. Defense lawyers have also questioned a plea bargaining arrangement under which Levine would be sentenced to a maximum of 5 1/2 years in prison instead of 30 years in return for cooperating with prosecutors.

After Monday's court hearing, a spokesman for Obama said that he had "no recollection" of the April 2004 event at Rezko's Wilmette home. Obama recently acknowledged stopping by the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago on another occasion when Rezko was hosting a small private dinner for two Qatar bankers in February 2004. At the time, Obama was in the middle of his U.S. Senate race.

A lawyer for Auchi, Alasdair Pepper, told me by phone from London that his client also had "no recollection" of any meeting with either Obama or his wife.

The Pinocchio Test

We will have to wait to see how this story plays out. It took many months for Obama to answer questions about his dealings with Rezko from Chicago newspapers, and new details about the relationship have dribbled out over time. On the other hand, Levine's rather sketchy testimony about the alleged April 2004 meeting with Auchi is far from conclusive.

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By Michael Dobbs  | April 16, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, Verdict Pending  
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