Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Rezko and the Emir of Qatar

UPDATE:Thursday:10-19-2006, 2:30 PM
Tony Rezko had arrived at Chicago O'Hare international airport today and was taken into custody by FBI agents on charges of fraud and extortion

While the feds are awaiting the return of Tony Rezko from overseas, a sideshow is opening up about how Tony Rezko made a web of friends and contacts by using them to channel campaign donations to Chicago area politicians and to his friend governor Blagojevich. And ultimately back to him through kickbacks as the indictment alleges.

Rezko’s contacts and partners are not restricted to Arab Americans, his partners include other Americans, which he did business with and as the government alleges conspired with to commit criminal conduct.

Rezko even was trying to get the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to partner with him in one of his businesses! He was quoted in Springfield newspaper, last year saying, "I'm planning to get him to do business in Illinois," Rezko said of the emir. After the Emir visited Springfield in May of last year.
Rezko told columnist Bernard Shoenburg of the Star Journal Register, a Springfield newspaper, that he is “ friend with the Emir”
The Emir of Qatar later made a $1 million donation to the Lincoln presidential library and Museum in Springfield.This was also reported by Chicago Tribune last year.

( Emir of Qatar)

According to the SJR newspaper in Springfield , Rezko said that he made a trip to Qatar a month before the visit, apparently trying to get the Emir to come to Springfield. And to make the $1 million donation
“The expectation is within three months he will make a donation to the museum" Rezko said then.
This appears to be true to Rezko’s fundraising pattern. Bringing the Emir to come to Springfield,have dinner with the governor and pay a million dollar. A very expensive dinner if you ask me. knowing what we know now about Rezko's "business" methods, most likely he was trying to set the unsuspecting Emir up.

What did Rezko get out of it? It remains to be seen.

Relating to Rezko –Blagojevich affair (Blzko) the Chicago Tribune ran a story yesterday about Khalil Shalabi and how he got a $78000.000 a year state job apparently as a result of his campaign work and fund raising for Blagojevich in conjunction with Tony Rezko. Khalil Shalabi is one of the leaders of the Arab American Democratic Club.

The Arab American Democratic Club was the vehicle through which some members of the Arab community worked through Rezko, to donate and collect money for Blagojevich, and now one can infer from press reports and government indictments that those donations were made with a tacit quid pro quo understanding of all parties involved.

The Arab American Democratic Club, or the Democratic Club as it is known in the community was something like of a black sheep in the Arab community. It was a private club and according to many community leaders I spoke to for this story, the Democratic club hardly had anything to do with the community.

*The Beginning
The Democratic club, started in 1994 by Ray Hanania and others among them were Khalil Shalabi, Samir Khalil, Ayoub Talhami and Miriam Zayed.The DC was organized to help Miriam Zayed who in 1994 ran for election to high school board district 230 in the southwest suburbs of Chicago.

Miriam Zayed, an active community member, well meaning and an honorable lady, did not win.But because of some disagreements among the board members Ray Hanania left and since then it became Khalil Shalabi and Samir Khalil organization.

Ayoub Talhami, now a retired city engineer was, according to many people I talked to, in it in good faith and not for personal gains. He for a long time worked for the City of Chicago, and needed no connections or clout to get a job.

The first time I met Khalil Shalabi was in the early nineties when I went to his business for a story I was writing. I am not too sure what was it about then but Maybe it was about some community squabble!

His activism with Rezko and others in this league had finally paid off in a form of a state job. But because of state’s Inspector General investigations of his professional conduct while on state payroll had recommended his dismissal. “Blagojevich is moving to fire him” The Chicago Tribune reported yesterday.

For Samir Khalil, the first time I met him was at the West 63RD street Chicago Police station when the Commander of whom I was interviewing for a story pertaining to Arab Americans, invited him to sit with us. He owned Ski Insurance agency across the street. That was in the early nineties also. He is now sitting on some fire fighters commission in Palos Hills.
Illinois Board of Election records shows that he made a $1000.00 donation to Blagojevich campaign on 9-21-02.

The Democratic club gave Blagojevich $10,500.00 since 2002 according to state records.

Ali Ata is another member of the Democratic club who had made it all the way to head a state finance commission without having any finance experience, and according to the Chicago Sun-Times investigation earlier this year he actually failed to pay mortgage on a property he owned. He resigned amid state investigation.

( Ali Ata)
According to state records, Ali Ata made a total of $ 81,750.00 donations to political candidates. 85% of it went to governor Blagojevich and his father in law Alderman Dick Mell. Blagojevich got the lion share in the total of $ 65000.00, and 34th Ward Alderman Dick Mell got $4000.00

Ata’s donations to Blagojevich:
6-30-2000----- $1000.00
7-30-2000---- $4000.00
8-20-02----- $5000.00
9-04-02---- $25000.00
7-25-03----- $25000.00
6-20-05---- $5000.00
(source: Illinois board of elections)

Alderman Dick Mell Chicago’s 34th Ward got the total of $4000.00 from Ata.

12-25-02 $ 1000.00
12-29-03 $2000.00
1-19-05 $1000.00
(Source: Illinois board of elections)

(Blagojevich's father in-law,chicago 34th ward alderman, Dick Mell)

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Blzko scandal

(Governor Blagojevich)

Tony Rezko story is making headlines in Illinois because of his powerful web of connections to most of Chicago area politicians, thanks to his donations to their political campaigns.

Since he was indicted last week, no one knows for sure where Rezko is. The FBI said that he was in an Amman Hotel; he also was reportedly in Qatar, where he is believed to be the Emir’s pal.
Rezko could go to his native Syria, and simply not comeback. In addition to his legal troubles, Rezko is in really big financial trouble. His house in the ritzy suburbs of Wilmette has over 3 million dollar lean to GE Capital after defaulting on payments. His businesses are faltering.

Rezko is also being sued by his former friend, also a native Syrian, Semir Serazi for defaulting on a million dollar loan, Serazi secured for Rezko.
Serazi, who heads the Semir and Liyla Serazi educational foundation,a businessman and a noted philanthropist,, is seeking 10 million dollars in his lawsuit.

( Semir Serazi)

Joe Duffy. Rezko’s attorney said that Rezko would be back to answer the charges mounting against him.

The question is that if Rezko goes to Syria and end up becoming a fugitive, would the Syrian government turn him in to the US despite that there is no extradition treaty with Syria.?

My guess is that the draconian Syrian government, eager to please, will gladly turn any Syrian in to any government, and might even torture him as a bonus, and a sign of good will to the Americans!

Tony Rezko is in a lot of trouble. The man has accumulated a confusing maze of companies and shell businesses that requires days of connecting them together to get a clear picture of those companies.
Rezko was awarded the "Entrepreneur of the decade " award from the Arab-American Business and professional Association.

( "Entrepreneur of the decade" Tony Rezko)

The main dough in Tony’s business is Pizza, but he was sued by the parent company,. He is also owns 7 Subway sandwich shops on Illinois toll way, thanks to his chummy connections to the governor.

Blagojevich administration was not very friendly to Arab Americans; perhaps it was to Rezko and his friends and associates whom all have gotten cushy jobs after “ donating “ some cash to the political campaign.

During the previous Republican Administration, an Arab American lady, Safia Shillo headed former lieutenant governor, Colleen Wood’s office of ethnic affairs. Safia Shillo was instrumental in helping the community to get access to government to solve social and political problems
Blagojevich came and abolished that office and fired Shillo. But to his credit he appointed other Arab Americans to state boards and commissions!!

The difference however was that those appointees were self-serving and interested in enriching themselves, and have rarely if ever helped or served the Arab American community.

The Blzko scandal is not even new in Chicago politics, which is still basically work the way it worked during Al Capone times but with heavy make-up.

Patrick Fitzgerald the assistant US attorney in Chicago, who is investigating the White House leak of Plame CIA connections, is also investigating City Hall as well as the Governor Mansion in Springfield.

( Governor Blagojevich and Rezko, ABC-7 picture)

Former Governor George Ryan is due to report to prison after the New Year to serve out his jail sentence after being convicted for corruption early this year.

Fitzgerald office has charged over 30 people for corruption in hiring schemes in the City Hall and 20 have been convicted so far.

Also this was not a very unique in the Arab American community. I mean, the City of Chicago has for many years what is called the “ The Advisory Commission on Arab affairs and Human relations” The problem is however is that the overwhelming members of the community, and the average Arab American “Billy Joe Mohammad” have never heard of it, nor have seen its “ helping hand” it’s a ghost Commission.
It is basically Daley’s men! Hardly have they done anything worthy for the community despite the major social, economical, and political upheavals the community had went through in the past few years.

( Mayor Daley)

Rezko’s scandal is just the beginning for the Governor Rod Blagojevich whose trouble started when his own father in law Alderman Richard Mill, one of Chicago's fossilized king makers accused him of corruption and money for jobs schemes after a family feud over business and political turfs.

After all, this is how it all started for former governor Ryan, whose corruption and subsequent conviction looks like a chum change comparing to Blzko scandal.

The rise and fall of Tony Rezko

Antoin “ Tony” Rezko, 51, a millionaire businessman in Chicago area was indicted on allegations that he used his influence with governor Rod Blagojevich to extort money from companies that seek business with the state.

Rezko is a key Blagojevich fundraiser and adviser, and has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the governor campaign as well as to other state and city public officials.

The indictment alleges that Rezko along with co-conspirator Stuart Levin attempted to force businesses to pay certain associates finders and consultant fees in the range of millions of dollars before in order to be approved to do business with the state.The scheme according to the indictment and reports in the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Suntimes worked like this:

Tony Rezko because of his influence with the governor recommends certain people to be appointed by the governor on State’s boards, commissions, and agencies who in turn would compel companies that seek to do business with the state to pay finder’s fees to consultants and other intermediary as well as make donations to Blagojevich campaign.

State agencies and Commissions such as the Teachers Pensions Funds have Billions of dollars to be invested. Board members appointed by governor can decided on companies that seek contracts with those commissions.

Some of this money finds its way to Rezko and Levine.
In one such cases the Chicago Tribune reported last Wednesday that:

“In one instance, the indictment alleges that Levine used his influence on the pension board in 2004 to withhold a planned allocation of $220 million in funds unless a kickback of $2 million was paid to a consultant of Rezko's and Levine's choosing or arrange for $1.5 million in campaign contributions to be made to an unnamed public official”

Rezko’s rise to prominence in the past two decades is something of an American dream success story. Born in Halab (Aleppo) Syria and moved to Chicago after high school and graduating from Illinois institute of Technology in degree in Engineering.

Rezko’s businesses and interests are wide and far, from communication company, to inner city rehab company that renovates buildings in low-income areas to Pizza. He reportedly owns between 25-30 Pizza restaurants named Papa Tony’s Pizza, after Papa John Pizza franchise terminated its affiliation with him.

Papa Tony’s Pizza is in financial trouble however, and Rezko might have sold it off.

Tony Rezko was scheduled to appear in court this past Friday but failed to appear due to his travel overseas. The FBI issued a warrant for his arrest. Patrick Fitzgerald the assistant US attorney for the Northern district of Illinois said that he will seek to designate Rizko a “ Fugitive” if he did not appear for last Friday hearing.

Rezko attorney Joseph Duffy, however, was able to convince the judge to give Rezko until the end of this week to make it back to the United Satiates to answer the charges against him.

The FBI in a statement said that Rezko was last know to have been in Amman Jordan and that he check out of his hotel and paid in cash.

Robert Grant Special agent in charge of the FBI, promised more indictments in this federal investigation dubbed “ Operation Board Game”

"This is a gathering storm of an investigation with a goal of rooting out the parasites that have plagued our public institutions," Grant said. "Our investigative efforts and those of our partners are ongoing, methodical, aggressive and relentless."

The Democratic Club
The Democratic club is an Arab American organization in Chicago area, and like its name, it is just a club of wealthy Arab American businessmen who held fundraising events for the democratic governor (last one was 2 weeks ago) and other democratic candidates.

The Democratic club seems to be a Rezko’s creature because some of the principle players in it are close associates of Rezko and were recommended and gotten state jobs by Rezko.

Ali Ata is one such associate and a Democratic club associate and who had gotten himself in a lot of trouble over his appointment to the finance commission without having any finance experience and subsequently resigned amid allegations of misconduct.

Ali Ata’s appointment would fit the pattern made by Rezko and his other associates.
They recommend people to the State jobs in order to personally profit financially and channel some of that money back to elections campaigns.

Arab Americans have long sought inclusion and access to the levers of power in Chicago politics and the state, in part to improve their lot as a community and to participate in the decisions that might effect and shape their lives.

(Ali Ata)

This however, was a scam the community had nothing to do with it nor anyone benefited from it except those who bought themselves jobs with the state.

The democratic club was not a community organization per se, it was a club of people who deliberately seek to make donations to democratic campaigns in exchange for jobs for themselves and their families.

That was the trade off.
Another new organization in the Arab community with an eye on "votes" and " Voting" American Middle Eastern Alliance, is the name of this new organization,, and is headed by Republican powerhouse, Talat Othman, and Bill Haddad a democratic cook county Judge,some of the members are : Attorney Rohey Shalabi who was appointed by Mayor Daley to the Park Distict, and Shafiq Budran of ADC.Dr.Emil Totanchi, one of the top doctors in chicago area. All of these men I personally know,and highly respect, however, the question is whether such efforts, albeit in good faith, would lead to empowerment of the community or lead to further disenfranchisement. The Rezko scandal should serve us an example that too much power sometimes corrupts the best of men.

We know from experience that Mayor Daley likes to encourage ethnic communities in Chicago to form their own Democratic organizations with the help from City Hall.

We also know that the Hispanic Democratic Organization and its founding leaders the Mayor's Hispanic hands,were under Federal investigation and indictments were issued against some of it leaders accused of corruption, giving city jobs to friends and buddies, muscles voters to vote a certain way, and practically serve as the Mayor's foot soldiers in the Hispanic community.

The Mosque Foundation and the Park district.

In another looming scandal, the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview, better known as the Harlem Mosque has decided to make an unprecedented donation of $100-150.000 to the Chicago park district at the former down town airport Meigs Field which was converted (City’s bulldozers plowed the runways in the middle of the night to head off any opposition) into a park by Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley.

What’s strange about this donation is that it’s coming from a religious institution, a non-for profit entity that depends on donations of the community to run its affairs.
In addition, the Mosque is not in the city of Chicago to begin with, and has nothing to do with the city of Chicago, let alone a park in a down town area.

Opposition to this donation is spearheaded by attorney Omar Najib , an attorney and a voting member of the Mosque foundation.

Najib accuses long time Harlem’s mosque imam, Sheik Jamal Said of forcing this donation on the Mosque board for political and personal reasons.

Sheik Jamal Said is a shrewd fundraiser, under his stewardship; the Mosque has become a multi million-dollar operation. Said is known to have collected millions of dollars from the community. He collected almost 2 million dollars during a month of Ramadan alone. One million dollar in one night and in a span of one hour.!

Attorney Omar Najib told me that he is considering filing a lawsuit against Sheik Jamal Said and attorney Rohey Shalabi to prevent this donation form going through.

Rohey Shalabi is the Mosque attorney and was appointed as a Park district commissioner by Mayor Daley a few years ago.

“ I was told by Mosque members that this donation (to the park district) is a PR for the Mosque” said Omar Najib when I asked him about why would the Mosque make this donation.

But Najib thinks that there are other political reasons behind this donation, which he thinks it has to do with Sheik Jamal Said.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Reshuffling the Cards.Gaza first

(Olmert, Abbas and King Abdullah)
The recent gun fights between Fatah gunmen and Hamas gunmen not only shows the dangerous level of violence that sweeps the Palestinian areas now. The violence that claimed many dead and injured, also shows how bad the political situation has become especially after the election of Hamas to power.

Rioting on streets touting machine guns and torching down government buildings were Palestinian “ anti riot” police who were mostly Fatah loyalists and who were allegedly acting on orders from Fatah leaders to spread chaos and unrest for Hamas government in order to eventually unseat the democratically elected government.

Hamas government, which assumed power with an empty treasury, is facing the daunting task of paying salaries to an army of government employees while facing international pressure and sanctions to force it to recognize Israel.

Adding to this pressure is Abbas collusion with regional and international powers as well as Israel to isolate Hamas and eventually unseat its government.
What’s happening on the streets of Gaza were not simply acts of violence but rather part of a scheme designed to buttress Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah men, and infuse his war chest with tens of millions of hard cash and supply his loyal forces with Israeli and Jordanian weapons for a possible showdown with Hamas militants.

The plan to support Abbas against Hamas comes as part of a larger thinking that wishes to establish a broad regional alliance between Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Abbas to counter another regional alliance that is taking shape between Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.
( Palestinian "anti riot" police, rioting)

But Hamas is chaotic and not moving forward either, its leadership in Damascus seems to be unwilling to accommodate Abbas or the regional powers other than Syrian and Iran. Hamas in unclear on how it wants to continue govern while it is unable to meet the basic necessities of the people of Gaza and the West Bank. In order to move forward and to stay a viable political power, Hamas has to show some pragmatism on some issues and must shed some of its political rigidity.

US secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who is visiting the region in these days will try to show US support and commitment to such regional alliance which will in the larger scheme of things serve the US interests in the region.
Those interests being:
1. Ensuring the safe flowing of oil at reasonable prices
2. Political stability in the region
3. Continuing unqualified support for Israel

Hezbollah’s recent success against Israeli attempts to smash it or at least weaken it made such alliance an urgent realty that prompted the US administration to call on its allies in the region to play a role in a new,active and "hostile containment" policy against the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are simply red lines for US policy in the region. At no point will the US live with a nuclear-armed Iran. For the US, a nuclear Iran is like giving a certified nut a machine gun and let him loose on the street. For that, a possible confrontation with Iran is looming before the end of George Bush’s term.

Meanwhile, the Intense violence on Gaza streets should be understood in light of two major events in the region.

1: the press reported a meeting between Israeli PM Ehud Olmert and an “ extremely senior ” Saudi Official. This official some reports speculate to be Prince Bandar Ben Sultan the former ambassador to US and now advising the king on National Security, or the meeting could have occurred with King Abdullah himself. If those reports were true, it would represent a tectonic shift for the Saudi Arabian policy, and underscores the seriousness of the US policy makers intentions not to allow Iran to go nuclear and also shows a yet-offensive US posture in the region.

The Saudis are also playing their own cards in Lebanon through their ally Saad Hariri, a Saudi Citizen, and others in the March 14th movement who oppose Hezbollah.

But the problem for Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, is that it does not have any divisions on the ground, it has no military power or borders with Lebanon, and Syria is in the other camp this time around. Also Israeli internal politics will not permit yet another war, at least in the foreseeable future. Therefore any confrontationS between Hezbollah and the Saudi allies, would smash the later and put Hezbollah in power in Lebanon.

2: Recent meetings at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba between Abbas, Israeli PM Olmert, King Abdullah, and Mubark confirms that the coordination between those powers is at the highest level and has the current US administration full backing and support.

Elsewhere,the Jordanian government is actively seeking to drive a wedge and possibly split the largest Jordanian opposition bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, along East Bankers-West Bankers lines, in other words it seeks to isolate pro-Hamas ( a sister organization) groups within the organization through Jordification of the group in line with " Jordan First" slogan.Thus deprive Hamas of local support in Jordan.

This, however, has nothing to do with Jordan in the strategic sense, but it is related rather to the larger regional configurations that are taking place and Jordan is part of it and already on the bandwagon .

For the Palestinians they are in a loose loose situation. They will not reap any major benefits out of their compliance with the new regional formation especially that Olmert is in no mood to dismantle illegal Jewish Settlements in Palestinian lands, and is not ready to allow a viable Palestinian state to emerge. But For Abbas and others in Fatah, this has become a secondary goal.
( A hearty moment)