Obama Spends 3 Hours with Chicago Press to Chat about Rezko

Late last week, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) sat down with The Chicago Tribune and The Chicago Sun-Times for 90 minutes each to answer questions about all things Tony Rezko.

As a result, the Tribune‘s editorial board pronounced themselves satisfied:

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama waited 16 months to attempt the exorcism. But when he finally sat down with the Tribune editorial board Friday, Obama offered a lengthy and, to us, plausible explanation for the presence of now-indicted businessman Tony Rezko in his personal and political lives.

The most remarkable facet of Obama’s 92-minute discussion was that, at the outset, he pledged to answer every question the three dozen Tribune journalists crammed into the room would put to him. And he did.

The outcome of the more combative Sun-Times interview seemed similar, so that near the end, there was this exchange:

Q: Comparing the benign-ness of the fact pattern and the trouble it’s caused you, do you think you’ve mishandled this at all?

A: I think that running for president is a series of gauntlets you have to run. And I think that we could have – setting aside the initial mistake which I deserve some blame for, I have acknowledged publicly – I think that understanding that there would be heightened interest in me, that Rezko had been finally indicted and arrested, that there was gonna be a need for us to do this again, I think was, it probably would have been good for us to do earlier. There’s no doubt about it.

The main revelation of the two interviews was that Rezko had raised about $100,000 more for Obama than the campaign had disclosed before, making it a total of approximately $250,000. The reason for the discrepancy, Obama explained, was that it was impossible to discover just what contributions Rezko had been responsible for in his state senate and run for the House in 2000. Obama estimated that Rezko helped raise between $50,000 to $60,000 in his run for the House and the remainder for his three state senate campaigns.

And about that house deal. Obama was much clearer about the timeline of how Rezko came to be involved in the deal. Remember that Rezko purchased the side yard of Obama house, raising suspicions that Rezko had helped out as a favor to Obama.But Obama explained for the first time that there had been a bid on the yard before Obama had even bid on the home, a bid by a developer who had worked for Rezko in the past. Obama did not know how Rezko was able to take over that bid, but was clear that the purchase of the side yard had nothing to do with his purchase of the home:

“The house purchase was negotiated between ourselves and the seller. It was not contingent on the lot. The lot had nothing to do with the sale of the house, and the sellers confirm it.”

(The Tribune has posted an email (pdf) from the seller, who has refused to speak to the media, confirming the main points of Obama’s story.)

And then there’s the question of what Obama knew about Rezko’s legal troubles and when he knew it. As we pointed out in our timeline of Obama’s ties to Rezko, Rezko’s troubles had broken onto The Chicago Tribune‘s front page before the house deal closed, and well before Obama purchased a sliver of land from Rezko in January of 2006.

Obama explains that he had been reading the Tribune‘s stories (which by late 2005, had made it clear that Rezko was under federal investigation), but that he had been inclined to give Rezko the benefit of the doubt, because over their fifteen year relationship he “had never asked me for anything.” That was why he was “not as focused as [he] should have been on the potential appearances involved.” Still, Obama said that he should have been more aware about “the potential conflicts of interest” involved in owning property next to Rezko, and that “a larger problem is me having bought the strip of land,” which he called a “bad idea,… a boneheaded move, and a mistake that I regret.”

Obama only discussed Rezko’s legal problems later, shortly before he was indicted:

“At that point, I do remember saying to him how’s it going because I’m reading these problems. And his response was that his lawyers had been talking to the U.S. Attorney’s office and it’s all getting resolved. That was the sum total.”

Obama also took questions on the Sun-Timesstory about letters from Obama in 1998, some seven years before the house sale, urging Illinois and Chicago officials to provide funding for a Rezko company to build apartments for senior citizens. That story had been a challenge to Obama’s assertions that he’d done nothing for Rezko. Obama responded that such letters had been a routine part of his state senate duties and so routine that it was sent out by his office without his knowledge.

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