|MJ..."Another point is that Rezko is Lebanese-----think I got that right, should have written it down"...|
For years, Antoin "Tony" Rezko was a strong advocate of grassroots Arab American activism in Chicago, providing funds for election campaigns and community outreach from profits he earned from an inner-city rehab program and from his growing food franchise business.
Born in Aleppo, Syria. Rezko moved to Chicago after graduating from high school. He holds a bachelors and a masters degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in civil engineering and construction management.
Rezko was often the largest contributor to Arab American campaigns for political office. Rezko once said that he felt proud to be able to contribute to his community.
Rezko is a member of the St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, which was founded by Lebanese American Danny Thomas and has many Arab American members, and also other philanthropic organizations around the country, many that serve Arab American interests.
But several years ago, Rezko’s generosity began to appear on campaign disclosure forms for prominent politicians in Chicago, Cook County and Illinois.
Today, those ties have made him the focus of an intense investigation surrounding allegations he profited from political favoritism and is involved in an abuse of set-aside programs that give minorities a preference in winning state, county and city contracts.
Rezko is a co-owner of Rezmar which rehabs buildings in the inner city. With his Jewish American partner, Dan Mahru, Rezmar has transformed abandoned eyesores into livable residences.
As Rezmar grew, Rezko entered the food service business and today holds franchise rights for the Panda Express Asian fast-food chain in five Midwestern states, including Illinois, and in Papa John’s, the nation’s third largest pizza chain.
Last year, in a dispute with Papa Johns, Rezko renamed his 30 Chicago-based pizza franchises "Pappa Tony’s." Today, Rezko reportedly owns more than 125 restaurants around the Midwest and employs more than 3,000 people.
Illinois is divided into three levels of political clout, beginning with Chicago, Cook County and the state of Illinois. Chicago and Cook County have always been Democratic controlled. The state was Republican controlled under Governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan, and now is under Democratic control under Blagojevich.
With the blessing of Chicago Mayor Daley, Rezko’s restaurant ventures included several exclusive franchises along the city’s beachfronts, on Chicago Park District property.
When Cook County Board President John Stroger ran for election, Rezko made the single largest campaign contribution to his campaign, more than $90,000. In October 2000, Stroger introduced a resolution praising Rezko’s commitment to the county.
Stroger, the county’s first African American county board president, is enjoying his second term in office. He has named Rezko as honorary chairman of his upcoming re-election campaign.
Rezko also became an adviser to former Gov. George Ryan, who was later indicted on unrelated government corruption charges, and to Blagojevich. Rezko was introduced to state politics and Ryan’s predecessor, Jim Edgar, by Talat Othman, a longtime fundraiser for state and city government officials. Edgar is now an associate of the PR firm Rezko hired to represent him.
Rezko raised more than $500,000 for Blagojevich.
Under Blagojevich, Rezko’s role changed expanding from fundraising to helping to name individuals to head key state offices and commissions including several Rezko colleagues.
But controversy soon erupted.
In 1997, Panda Express won the right to open a lucrative concession at O’Hare International Airport under the city’s Minority Set-Aside program which directs large contracts to companies owned by Women, African Americans or Hispanics.
The city awarded a 10-year contract for O’Hare Airport to Crucial Inc. in 1999, which the city believed was owned by an African American, Jabir Herbert Muhammad, the son of the late Elijah Mohammad.
Crucial Inc.’s annual revenues skyrocketed from under $200,000 in each year before opening at O'Hare, to nearly $6 million in 2002, according to recently published reports. Crucial Inc. has earned nearly $16 million in its first four years at the airport.
Last March, Chicago officials charged that Jabir Herbert Muhammad had acted as a front for the real owner, Rezko, who is of Syrian Arab heritage and does not qualify for minority set-asides.
According to Mayor Daley, Jabir Muhammad founded Crucial Inc. in 1976. It was certified as a minority business in 1989. Rezko had been involved with the company since 1983, serving as a vice president and general manager. In July 1997, the company’s minority status lapsed but the forms were not renewed.
Although Muhammad said he ran Crucial Inc., city officials said the company was run by Abdelhamid "Al" Chaib, and longtime friend and Rezko business associate.
Rezko later told the Chicago Tribune that he did not do anything wrong and is surprised by all the attention. Daley said the city’s investigation showed that Crucial Inc. should never have received the contract and should be stripped off its minority business certification.
Rezko’s clout grows
Crucial Inc. was also hired as a subcontractor to telephone giant SBC Communications, which received an exclusive deal to provide 1,000 pay phones for Cook County Government.
A spokesman for Stroger said County officials are investigating to determine whether or not Crucial Inc. still meets the county’s minority business criteria. Six of Rezko’s relatives have been placed on the Cook County payroll, according to published reports.
In state government, Rezko’s ties resulted in a prize greater that lucrative financial contracts. At least three of his associates were appointed to influential positions overseeing hiring, contracts and policy.
Former business partner Jack Lavin, named to Gov. Blagojevich’s cabinet as Director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. He served as Rezko’s former CFO. Lavin is an officer of Crucial Inc.
Winnetka Podiatrist Fortunee Massuda appointed by Blagojevich in 2003 to sit on the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. He is a partner in a real estate venture with Rezko.
Kelly King Dibble, a Rezko business associate, was named by Gov. Blagojevich as executive director of the Illinois Housing Development Authority.
Abdelhamid "Al" Chaib, vice president of Crucial Inc., is the sole owner of the Subway sandwich shops that have secured the rights to operate at seven of the State’s Tollway oases. Chaib also is a director of Rezko Concessions Inc., which is Rezko's portion of the joint venture with Panda Express, state records show.
Already Rezko has become a target in the upcoming election campaign, Illinois State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka has alleged that Rezko is a part of a "shadow government" pulling the strings in the Blagojevich administration.
Rezko has a long history of supporting Arab American causes. He made a significant donation to help establish the Ibn Rushd Lectureship in Arabic in 2002 at the University of Chicago. Rezko served as a former Executive Director to the Muhammad Ali Foundation. And, he was named "Entrepreneur of the Decade" by the Arab-American Business and Professional Association. The president and founder of ABPA is a generous and successful Chicago Arab American businessman and political adviser, Talat Othman.