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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 12:21 pm

Let's make a deal?

Levine's relatively light sentence could be a sign of trouble ahead

Stu Levine

Corrupt political insider Stu Levine was hit with so many federal indictments earlier this year that he was literally facing a life sentence behind bars.

Last week, he copped a plea that will let him walk free after five years and seven months in what will probably be a minimum-security prison — in exchange for his cooperation.

We can discern one of two things from this: (1) Much of the federal case was weak, and letting Levine off relatively easy was a face-saving move by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald; or (2) Levine has agreed to help the feds reel in some very big fish and used that prospect to negotiate a much better deal.

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I find myself leaning toward door No. 2.

Stu Levine was a major Republican moneybags for years. He gave a fortune to Jim Ryan’s campaign, and, when Ryan lost to Rod Blagojevich, the newly elected Democratic governor reappointed Levine to a couple of important state boards.

What we’ve discovered since then is that one of Blagojevich’s top fundraisers, Tony Rezko, had a close relationship with Levine and was apparently the one who persuaded Blagojevich to keep the Republican around. Rezko himself was indicted earlier this month for alleged corruption related to Levine.

We’re also finding out that Levine was also allegedly good pals with someone who is about as close to Blagojevich as you can get without being a family member: Chris Kelly.

A guilty plea last year by Democratic fundraiser Joe Cari implicated Kelly, as did Rezko’s indictment this month. It was alleged that Kelly had participated in a shakedown scheme designed to raise $1.5 million for the governor’s campaign fund.

Then there’s the ever-increasing involvement of “Individual A,” who has been identified as Republican powerbroker Bill Cellini. In the Rezko indictment, Cellini allegedly played a role in the campaign-contribution-shakedown scheme with Kelly and the others. The Levine guilty plea alleges that Cellini, again identified as Individual A, was allegedly mixed up in a scheme to help out a “local public official” who had a relationship with the governor and was wanting some money.

If all this is true — hey, if even half of it is true — it would be a classic example of the “old way of doing business” that Blagojevich repeatedly pledged to end if voters took a chance on him four years ago.

Blagojevich’s role in all of these allegations — and they are still allegations — is not totally clear. We do know that Levine paid to fly Blagojevich and his top people out to New York on two separate occasions for fundraising events. Also on the trip were admitted felon Cari and Kelly, who flatly denies that he has ever done anything wrong, as has Cellini, as has Rezko.

The governor raised about $120,000 in campaign contributions on the first trip, and a few weeks later the contributors got some big state contracts. The governor says this was all a coincidence.

There are many “coincidences” in this administration. For instance, the governor initially claimed that it was just a coincidence that two friends of Rezko’s each ponied up $25,000 to Blagojevich’s campaign fund right around the time the governor appointed them to a state board that governs hospitals. As it turns out, that board was more crooked than anything George Ryan was ever accused of. Levine was reappointed to the board by the governor and then proceeded to cut all sorts of corrupt deals. Rezko was also allegedly in on the scam at that board.

It’s also supposedly a coincidence that the governor’s daughter received a $1,500 check from a gubernatorial pal right around the time that the man’s wife got a state job, even though the women failed the state test. But I digress.

After Levine pleaded guilty, the governor issued a statement claiming that Levine’s plea had made it “clear” that Blagojevich “had absolutely no knowledge of any of the wrongdoing perpetrated by Stuart Levine.”

Maybe, maybe not. All I know is, the feds don’t usually drop a guy down from life in prison to 67 months for just any target.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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