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President Barack Obama’s longest-running Syrian problem may not but refugees, but Chicago’s powerful Syrian-American “godfather” Antoin “Tony” Rezko who was released from a federal penitentiary in July.
Rezko was born and raised in Aleppo, Syria, and came to the United States in the 1970s. Before his arrest and imprisonment, he became Chicago’s most influential Syrian-American. He also was Obama’s political adviser, personal friend and biggest Arab-American fundraiser.
Importantly, Rezko introduced Obama to the city’s Arab-American activist groups, including the Arab American Action Network whose leader’s home was once raided by the FBI. Rezko has not given interviews since his release.
He was convicted in 2010 of 16 federal counts involving fraud, money laundering and kickbacks for government contracts that included securing state jobs for Arab-Americans, many of whom had no qualifications for the posts. He spent seven years in prison.
Rezko’s re-emergence in Chicago’s Arab American politics could raise uncomfortable issues for the president about his controversial transactions with Rezko, as well as his relationship with Chicago’s strident Arab-American community.
The Rezko-Obama story began when the Syrian-American tried to recruit Obama out of law school. Instead, Obama joined a small Chicago activist law firm that also did business with Rezko.
On at least five occasions Obama himself defended Rezko’s Rezmar Corporation when it poorly maintained low-income housing that was cited by the city for deficiencies.
Through social outings Tony and Rita Rezko also became personal friends with Barack and Michelle Obama. They had private dinners together and vacationed together.
“There was one occasion where he invited us up to Lake Geneva (Wisconsin) with his family,” Obama told the Chicago Tribune in a March 2008 interview that focused on his relationship with Rezko.
“And there was another occasion where, as couples, he and his wife, and Michelle and I, went to a restaurant here in Chicago,” Obama recalled.
One eye-opening revelation that caused trouble for Obama in the middle of his 2008 presidential race was when Rita Rezko paid $625,000 to buy a small lot next to the Obama’s current 6,500-square-foot Chicago home.
The payout allegedly reduced the seller’s asking price for the Obamas, who eventually paid $1.65 million. Chicago Tribune reporter John Kass, wrote in 2008 that Rezko was Obama’s “real estate fairy.”
Aside from the house, Rezko also became Obama’s biggest single source of Arab American political money.
When Obama first ran for state Senate in 1996, Rezko gave him $15,000, then another $75,000 for his failed congressional race in 2000.
Overall, Rezko gave at least $263,000 in contributions to Obama for his 2004 Senate bid. In the end, Obama said in the Chicago Tribune interview he gave $160,000 to charity when the Rezko contributions were disclosed.
But the Syrian-American also introduced Obama to Chicago’s Arab-American community.
Rezko was a generous financial supporter of a number of Arab American groups in Chicago, including the Arab American Action Network (AAAN). The Obamas were seen at many Chicago Arab events.
“Rezko got a lot of grant money to AAAN” and to Ali Abunimah, the radical author of the “Electronic Intifada,” according to Ray Hanania, a Chicago-based Arab American media consultant in a 2012 interview with this reporter.
The Obama’s attended several AAAN dinners, including one honoring radical Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi and another that featured the late Palestinian theorist Edward Said.
“Over the years since I first saw Obama speak, I met him about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago,” wrote Abunimah of the “Electronic Intifada” in a March 2007 post.
After his election to the White House, Obama became close to AAAN. Hatem Abudayyeh, the group’s executive director, attended an April 22, 2010 “policy briefing” at the White House, according to White House visitor logs.
But in September 2010, FBI agents raided Abudayyeh’s Chicago home reportedly seeking evidence of AAAN being used as a conduit for funding to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other Middle Eastern terrorist groups.
The Obama Department of Justice, however, never pressed charges against the AAAN leader or the group.
Today AAAN is very outspoken about Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s decision to stop Syrian refugees coming into the state.
Abudayyeh says in a Nov. 15 posting he is “sickened” by the governor’s decision, adding “it fuels racist stereotypes against Arab-American and American Muslim communities in our state.”
It is not clear if Rezko will join the Syrian refugee fight. His attorney did not return multiple calls from The Daily Caller News Foundation about his plans.
But Rezko left a void when he went to prison — and now he’s back. “Was there any other Tony Rezko’s in the Arab community? He was unique,” concluded Hanania.
“When you think of Chicago politics you think of politicians and media. We had very few players at those levels,” Hanania said.