CHICAGO — Ali Ata, the former, and first, head of the Illinois Finance Authority, received probation from a federal judge this week for his role in a state public corruption scandal that eventually landed former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in prison.
Ata was named executive director of the authority in exchange for $50,000 in campaign contributions to Blagojevich. He was able to avoid prison by cooperating with federal prosecutors in their pay-to-play probe launched in 2003 known as Operation Board Games.
U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel handed down the four-year probation sentence Tuesday in Chicago. Ata also has paid restitution of $150,000 and was ordered to pay a fine of $50,000.
“I am truly sorry for my actions, and I take full responsibility,” Ata was quoted as saying during the sentencing hearing in published reports.
Assistant U.S. attorney Brandon Fox called Ata the mot honorable of those accused in the investigation and noted the importance of his cooperation in the government’s convictions of Blagojevich and his top adviser, Antoin “Tony” Rezko. Ata entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago in 2008, pleading guilty to one count of making false statements to a federal law enforcement official and one count of making false statements on his tax return.
The tax count stemmed from scheme in which he assisted Rezko — a businessman and political fundraiser and advisor to Blagojevich — on a business deal and failed to report the income. The other stemmed from lying to federal investigators about how he received his job. The plea agreement laid out how he was awarded the position for making two $25,000 contributions to Blagojevich.
The job paid an annual salary of $127,000. The IFA opened its doors in January 2004 after the General Assembly approved Blagojevich’s consolidation of most statewide conduit authorities. Ata resigned in 2005 before the scandal broke.
The plea agreement was reached during Rezko’s trial on separate corruption charges, alleging he participated in efforts to shake down businesses interested in doing state business to enrich himself and for campaign contributions to the then-governor. Ata testified at Rezko’s trial.
Ata had been looking for a job after his employer Nalco Chemical Co. allegedly sought his retirement after the 2001 terrorist attacks, because he had the same name as one of the hijackers. Ata testified during Blagojevich’s first trial in 2008, which ended with the jury deadlocked on all but one count. He did not testify at Blagojevich’s second trial as the government sought to streamline and simplify their case.
In Blagojevich’s first trial, Ata testified that he contributed $25,000 to Blagojevich during the election in 2002 and was told by Rezko that he would be considered for a position in the future administration.
Rezko later mentioned the IFA position and asked for a $50,000 contribution. Ata, who came up with just $25,000 more, testified that Blagojevich subsequently thanked him for his support and said he hoped Ata would receive a position in which he could “make some money.”
Rezko is serving a 10-and-a-half year sentence.
Blagojevich was indicted in 2009 on pay-to-play charges and for attempting to profit from his power over the appointment to fill the senate seat held by newly-elected President Obama. He was convicted of bribery, attempted extortion and other corruption charges during his second trial, and began serving a 14-year sentence this past March.
In the first trial, prosecutors alleged that the governor and his cronies steered the books on the state’s 2003 $10 billion pension deal to the former Bear, Stearns & Co. They sought to pocket $500,000 from an $809,000 consulting fee Bear Stearns paid its consultant, Robert Kjellander of Springfield Consulting Group LLC. The government dropped the charges in the ex-governor’s second trial and Kjellander has not been charged.
Two others charged in the government’s case familiar to Illinois’ public finance community include John Harris and John Glennon. Both cooperated with federal prosecutors. Glennon received two years probation and Harris received a 10-day prison sentence.
Harris is a former Chicago budget director who led early planning of the ongoing $8 billion expansion of O’Hare International Airport. He later went on to serve as Blagojevich’s chief of staff and assisted in the governor’s attempts to profit from the Senate appointment.
Glennon, a close adviser to Blagojevich’s predecessor George Ryan, crafted the $12 billion 1999 capital program known as Illinois First, which expanded the state’s use of negotiated sales. He was charged with hiding kickbacks.