Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As Sen. Barack Obama nears the Democratic presidential nomination, a corruption trial of his former fund-raiser Antoin (Tony) Rezko on charges of influence peddling begins in Chicago today (Monday). Sen. Hillary Clinton's operatives have tried frantically, but not effectively, to interest U.S. news media outside Chicago in Obama's possible connection with his home state's latest major scandal.

Obama bought a mock Georgian mansion on Chicago's south side on June 15, 2005, the same day Rezko's wife bought a plot next door from the same seller. Obama then purchased from Rezko another parcel at above-market value. Federal prosecutors recently revealed that Nadhmi Auchi, an Iraqi billionaire who lives in London, wired $3.5 million to the financially strapped Rezko in Chicago less than a month before the Obama-Rezko purchases. James Bone, investigative reporter for the Times of London, wrote last Tuesday that "the money transfer raises the question of whether funds" from Auchi "helped" Obama buy his house.

This is what candidate Clinton had in mind after losing Iowa's caucuses when she claimed Obama had not been properly "vetted" to be president. For months prior to that, her agents had hinted darkly that Obama's past could be used by Republicans when the time came. But these were only hints, because of fear that explicit revelations would backfire against Clinton.

The closest Clinton has come to openly raising Obama's connections with Rezko was during the Congressional Black Caucus presidential debate Jan. 21. "I was fighting" against "bad" Republican ideas, she told Obama, "when you were practicing law and representing your contributor, Rezko, in his slumlord business in inner-city Chicago." In fact, Clinton messed it up. Rezko was not a client of Obama's firm and was not a slumlord. Accused of racial insensitivity, Clinton dropped the issue.

Howard Wolfson, Clinton's sharp-tongued communications director, was not giving up and was more precise than his candidate Feb. 14, when interviewed by "National Journal On Air." He contended: "There are many questions ... about his relationship with indicted political fixer Tony Rezko that he could answer, that he has not. What was the exact nature of his relationship with Mr. Rezko? ... How much money did Mr. Rezko bundle for him? ... What favors did Sen. Obama perform for Mr. Rezko?"

Clinton agents have shopped this story around the news media since her 10-state losing streak started. A "Rezko Watch" blog attacks both Rezko and Obama daily, while alleging connections between them. The blog appears to be written by a self-styled "citizen journalist" who calls himself "B Merryfield" and dispenses the straight pro-Clinton line.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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