February 26, 2008

Did Saddam Figure's Millions Influence Obama?

The Times of London follows the money in the journalistic tradition of Watergate and finds a strange connection between Tony Rezko, Barack Obama, and Nadhmi Auchi. The latter, one of Britain's richest men, has a long history of shady financial dealings as well as numerous connections to Saddam Hussein, who he helped to power. According to the Times, Auchi sent a lot of money to Rezko just before his wife bought property adjacent to the Obamas in a land deal that has already raised a lot of eyebrows:

A British-Iraqi billionaire lent millions of dollars to Barack Obama's fundraiser just weeks before an imprudent land deal that has returned to haunt the presidential contender, an investigation by The Times discloses.

The money transfer raises the question of whether funds from Nadhmi Auchi, one of Britain’s wealthiest men, helped Mr Obama buy his mock Georgian mansion in Chicago.

A company related to Mr Auchi, who has a conviction for corruption in France, registered the loan to Mr Obama's bagman Antoin "Tony" Rezko on May 23 2005. Mr Auchi says the loan, through the Panamanian company Fintrade Services SA, was for $3.5 million.

Three weeks later, Mr Obama bought a house on the city's South Side while Mr Rezko's wife bought the garden plot next door from the same seller on the same day, June 15.

Why is this important to the land deal?

Mrs Rezko paid the asking price for the garden but the Obamas bought the house for $1.65 million, - $300,000 less than the asking price. The sellers deny they offered the Obamas a discount on the house because the garden had fetched full price from Mrs Rezko.

They took 15% less than the asking price? That's a rather remarkable discount. And how exactly did the Rezkos afford to buy the adjacent plot? It cost $625,000, and they needed to make a $125,000 down payment on the land. Yet at the time, Tony Rezko had "no income, negative cash flow, no liquid assets, no unencumbered assets [and] is significantly in arrears on many of his obligations" -- according to a sworn court statement a year later. His wife had an income of $37,000 and assets of around $35,000.

How could they qualify for a mortgage on the adjacent plot? Where did they get the money for the down payment? More importantly, why did Auchi lend so much money to Rezko, when Rezko had been in such financial straits? And why was Auchi so interested in Rezko in the first place?

Let's take another look at Auchi:

Auchi's brother was among the many Baathists killed by Saddam, but the execution 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.

In the mid-1980s he got to know Pierfrancesco Pacini Battaglia, a man whose role in directing money to politicians led Italians to call him 'the one below God'. Saddam Hussein had ordered the construction of a pipeline from Iraq to Saudi Arabia. Battaglia and Auchi secured the contract for a Franco-Italian consortium. In a statement to New York lawyers Battaglia alleged he knew how. 'To acquire the contract it was necessary, as is usual, especially in Middle Eastern countries, to pay commission to characters close to the Iraqi government... In this case, the international intermediary who dealt with this matter was the Iraqi, Nadhmi Auchi.' Auchi has denied any wrong-doing.

Nick Cohen suggests that Britain only extradited Auchi to France to face fraud charges in 2003 because our invasion of Iraq had ended his usefulness as an expert on the Hussein regime for MI-6. In any case, Auchi also allegedly had a hand in defrauding the UK's National Health System after his fleecing of the French oil company Elf.

Rick Moran pines for the late Mike Royko, who would have known exactly what to do with these connections:

At this point, unless there is a deliberate, concerted effort by the large media outlets to allow this story to die once Rezko is convicted, I find it probable that other revelations are yet to come that will show Obama to be just another machine politician, skirting the edge of ethics and the law – perhaps even going over the line and engaging in criminal activities.

Obama is not the Agent of Change. He is a calculating politician who plays the game the same way politicians have been playing it for hundreds of years – receiving money in exchange for favors from government for his friends and cronies. And if Mike Royko were alive, one has to believe that despite agreeing with his politics, Royko would have been relentless in taking Obama down, hammering away in his own inimitable style at the influence selling, the sweetheart deals, the pay for favors, and all the rest of this sleazy mess.

No Royko today. But we have an army of bloggers who can push this story into the mainstream and force the media to expend the resources necessary to get to the bottom of the Rezko-Obama enterprise. True, like Whitewater it is a very complex story and there is very little ease in the telling. But given the stakes, an effort should be made nonetheless.

There seems to be a lot more to Rezko than just slumlording. When a figure like Auchi gives a low-rent figure like Rezko that kind of money, he's not looking to expand tenement ownership.


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