White House Influence Is Cited in Corruption Trial

whitehouse.jpgBy Eric Lipton |

A prominent Illinois Republican Party leader may have tried to use his friendship with the former White House political aide Karl Rove to push for the ouster of the United States attorney in Chicago, a federal prosecutor said in court on Wednesday.

The accusation came in the trial of a Chicago-area political fund-raiser and businessman, Antoin Rezko, who is facing bribery charges as part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation that has been a source of embarrassment to both Democrats and Republicans in Illinois.

Mr. Rezko’s former business partner is cooperating with the authorities and is expected to testify that Mr. Rezko told him in 2004 that the Illinois Republican Party official was “working with Mr. Rove to have Mr. Fitzgerald removed so that someone else can come in,” and perhaps terminate the investigation, an assistant United States attorney, Carrie Hamilton, said in court on Wednesday, referring to Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney in Chicago.

The Republican official who is accused of seeking Mr. Fitzgerald’s ouster, Robert Kjellander, is a longtime friend of Mr. Rove.

Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Mr. Kjellander denied having tried to orchestrate Mr. Fitzgerald’s ouster. “I never have discussed with Karl Rove or anyone on the White House staff the proposition that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald should or could be removed from his office,” he said.

A lawyer for Mr. Rove, Robert D. Luskin, said Mr. Rove had no recollection of a conversation with Mr. Kjellander about Mr. Fitzgerald’s possible fate. Even had it taken place, Mr. Luskin said, Mr. Rove took no steps to orchestrate the ouster.

Mr. Fitzgerald has garnered both respect and animosity since he arrived in Chicago from New York in 2001, pursuing high-profile corruption cases that have resulted in the indictment or conviction of dozens of state and local officials, up to former Gov. George Ryan, a Republican.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s appointment was an end to the tradition in which a prominent local lawyer – typically with longstanding friends among local officials – tended to go easy on questionable practices among his peers, said Steven J. Rauschenberger, a former Republican state senator.

“The power brokers under indictments and under continuing scrutiny here – both Republicans and Democrats – obviously don’t like what Patrick Fitzgerald is doing,” Mr. Rauschenberger said. “He has upset the apple cart.”

Disdain among certain Republicans for Mr. Fitzgerald escalated in late 2003, when the Justice Department chose him as a special counsel to lead the White House investigation into the disclosure of the identity of Valerie Wilson, the former C.I.A. operative. That inquiry resulted in the conviction last year of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, on perjury and obstruction of justice charges.

Mr. Kjellander, a prominent Illinois businessman and lobbyist who first met Mr. Rove in the 1970s when they were active in college Republican groups, was regional chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004. He is a Republican National Committee member from Illinois.

Mr. Kjellander has not been charged in any of Mr. Fitzgerald’s inquiries. But one criminal case called attention to a $4.5 million finder’s fee Mr. Kjellander was paid in 2002 after he helped line up a $500 million deal between the Illinois teachers’ pension fund and a private equity firm in Washington. The state has since prohibited such fees.

Mr. Kjellander’s reported appeal to Mr. Rove to remove Mr. Fitzgerald was said to have taken place just before the White House and the Justice Department initiated an effort in early 2005 to remove several United States attorneys.

Mr. Fitzgerald, at least briefly, was among those who were considered for removal, D. Kyle Sampson, the attorney general’s former chief of staff, testified last year. But Mr. Sampson also testified that, as far as he could remember, it was not Mr. Rove who had pushed for Mr. Fitzgerald’s ouster.

Mr. Luskin, Mr. Rove’s lawyer, said Wednesday that Mr. Rove would never have taken such a step while the White House leak investigation was under way, as he was also a potential target in the inquiry.

But Mr. Luskin said Mr. Rove had heard calls at Republican social events over the years for Mr. Fitzpatrick’s removal, particularly from Republicans frustrated with his zeal as a prosecutor.

“But he never responded or acted on those requests,” Mr. Luskin said.

Spokesmen for Mr. Fitzpatrick and the Justice Department would not comment Wednesday.


Catrin Einhorn contributed reporting from Chicago.