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Hot Democratic Properties

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Back in 1992 it was the Whitewater real estate deal that plagued the Clintons, though fortunately for them, Jeff Gerth’s initial expose in the New York Times on March 8, 1992, was incomprehensible. Hillary Clinton and her lawyer Susan Thomases muddied the trail by maintaining falsely that Mrs Clinton’s billing files–which would have disclosed her numerous conferences with Madison Guaranty –could not be located.

If Hillary wins the nomination Republicans will once again plow through the vast acreage of questionable deals and evasive responses developed by the Clintons down the years, the latest ones, such as Bill’s financial cavortings with the Canadian mining entrepreneur, still as fragrant as freshly turned manure.

Barack Obama has already felt the hot breath of investigators for his property deal in 2005 on the south side of Chicago. This one will have legs as long as Obama is in the race for the Democratic nomination. If he wins that prize, the scrutiny will get more intense, as Republicans link him with an Iraqi millionaire who has been linked to Saddam Hussein from the earliest years of the Iraqi dictator’s bloodstained rise to power.

In 2005 Obama bought a Georgian mansion in Chicago’s elite Kenwood neighborhood. He paid $1.65 million for it. The same day Rita Rezko, the wife of Chicago property operator Antoin “Tony” Rezko, bought the adjacent undeveloped lot, which had once been part of the mansion’s garden. Rezko paid $650,000 for the parcel which at present can only be accessed from the Obama property and which Obama’s garden crew has been keeping tidy. Obama got his house for $300,000 under the asking price. Rezko paid full asking price. Later, Obama bought a sixth of Rezko’s parcel for $100,000.

Obama has known Rezko ever since the latter contacted him as a possible associate in the real estate business after Obama got the top slot at the Harvard Law Review and was an obvious comer in Chicago politics. Rezko, like all major real estate players, has made a career of playing insider politics and forming political alliances advantageous for his dealings. He’s contributed to Obama’s campaigns down the years. Answering questions from the Chicago Sun-Times in 2005, specifically about the allegation that the newly elected US senator contacted Rezko when he first thought of buying the Kenwood mansion, Obama said very carefully, “I don’t recall exactly what our conversations were or where I first learned, and I am not clear what the circumstances were where he made a decision that he was interested in the property. I may have mentioned to him the name of [a developer and] he may at that point have contacted that person. I’m not clear about that.”

At the time of the 2005 transaction Rezko’s legal problems had already surfaced and Obama told the Sun-Times that involving Rezko “was a mistake”. Rezko is now under indictment by US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (Scooter Libby’s special prosecutor). He faces trial in federal court on February 25. On January 29 a federal judge, Amy J. St Eve, ordered Rezko held behind bars for violating the terms of his bail and for being a flight risk.

Though, as part of his bail terms, Rezko was required by the court to disclose any changes in his financial status the FBI, using a “cooperating individual” identified only as “C14”, claims to have established that Rezko did not reveal that in April, 2007, he appeared to have been the beneficiary of a $3.5 million wire transfer from General Mediterranean Holding S.A., a company run by a business associate of Rezko’s, N. Auchi. General Meditarranean has been partner with Rezko in a 62-acre property deal in Chicago.

Nadhmi Auchi lives in the U.K.,is extremely rich and politically well connected. In November 2003 he was the subject of unsparing criticism by Nick Cohen in The Observer. Cohen claimed that:

He was charged in the 1950s with being an accomplice of Saddam Hussein, when the future tyrant was acquiring his taste for blood … One reason why journalists have shied away from Auchi is that he has expensive lawyers. They have always denied that their client had met Saddam. No one has been able to contradict them, but we do know that Auchi was charged with being a plotter for the Baath Party as it prepared to seize power. In October 1959 he stood trial for conspiring to assassinate the Iraqi Prime Minister, Abdul Karim Qasim. The attempted murder became a revered part of Saddam’s cult of personality … In 1959 Auchi admitted to playing a minor part in the drama. The conspirators had collected a machine gun from his house before the attack, he said, but he had not used the weapon and knew nothing of what was being planned.

Auchi prospered when the Baath Party seized control of the state. When Saddam assumed total power he moved to Britain … the execution [of his brother] did not inhibit Auchi’s business dealings with Iraq which, he says, didn’t stop until the Gulf war of 1991. His first coup in the West was to broker a deal to sell Italian frigates to the Iraqi Defence Ministry, for which he received $17m in commission. Italian investigators claimed that a Panamanian company owned by Auchi was used to funnel allegedly illegal payments. Auchi denied he had done anything wrong.

The Observer’s website featuring Cohen’s story also supplies a link to a statement in which Auchi’s lawyers say their client “was never close to Saddam Hussein or his regime. He never met or even spoke to Saddam Hussein. Mr Auchi has never to his knowledge had any involvement in money stolen by Saddam Hussein and/or Colonel Gadaffi and he has never sheltered funds for Saddam Hussein. During the time when Iraq was considered to be a friend of the west, Mr Auchi conducted business with entities in Iraq. On sanctions being imposed against Saddam Hussein’s regime, Mr Auchi ceased conducting such business.”

Cohen says that in the fall of 2003 Auchi “was convicted of illicit profiteering by the Paris Criminal Court and received a 15-month suspended sentence.”

Obama is certainly aware that Rezko is a political liability. Thus far the most tangible benefit from his association unearthed by reporters has been some $50-60,000 in campaign contributions from Rezco down the years (Obama’s estimate) plus the adjacent-lot property deal in Kenwood which does smell. One inference back in 2005 might have been that Rezko would finally have conveyed the undeveloped lot to Obama in some manner advantageous to the senator. Apparently Obama scented peril as the spotlight came on his association with Rezko and had a substantial fence (which Rezko promised to pay for) erected between the two parcels. The Rezko parcel is supposedly scheduled for a house.

In terms of political mudslinging, if Obama continues to prosper politically this year, we can expect ongoing probes for political favors he might have done for Rezko down the years. For the political hit squads the money shot, so to speak, is any headline that links Barack Hussein Obama with an Iraqi millionaire not only linked to the oil-for-food scandal but to the Baath Party and to Saddam Hussein.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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