The trial of Chicago developer and political fixer Antoin "Tony" Rezko has been closely watched for any mention of the defendant's onetime friend, Barack Obama. But last week, prosecutors threw a curveball, telling the judge that one of their witnesses is prepared to raise the name of another prominent Washington hand: Karl Rove. Former Illinois state official Ali Ata is expected to testify about a conversation he had with Rezko in which the developer alleged Rove was "working with" a top Illinois Republican to remove the Chicago U.S. attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald.
The allegation, which Rove denies, quickly reverberated in Washington. Democrats in Congress now want to question Ata. They believe he can help buttress their theory that Rove played a key role in discussions that led to the firings of U.S. attorneys at the Justice Department in 2006. The House Judiciary Committee "intends to investigate the facts and circumstances alleged in this testimony," panel chairman Rep. John Conyers of Michigan said in a statement to NEWSWEEK.
Investigators are intrigued by the timing of the alleged conversation about Fitzgerald. According to the Rezko prosecutors, it took place in November 2004—weeks after Fitzgerald had subpoenaed Rove to testify for the third time in another matter he was aggressively investigating, the Valerie Plame CIA leak case. A source familiar with Ata's testimony (who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters) said that Ata was meeting regularly with Rezko that fall. The two men shared a concern about Fitzgerald's ongoing probe of Illinois public officials. In one of those conversations, the developer allegedly told Ata that Bob Kjellander, a prominent GOP state lobbyist, was talking to Rove about getting rid of Fitzgerald. The reason: to "get a new U.S. attorney" who would not pursue the Illinois corruption probe, the source said. Ata, who has pleaded guilty to corruption-related charges and is now cooperating with the Feds, has no evidence that the conversation took place other than what Rezko allegedly told him, the source says.
Kjellander denies that he told Rezko anything of the kind. "I never had a discussion with Karl Rove or any other person on the White House staff" about firing Fitzgerald, said Kjellander, now a top GOP official in charge of this summer's convention. Rove's lawyer, Bob Luskin, told NEWSWEEK that Rove "does not recall" a conversation with Kjellander about Fitzgerald. He added that Rove "never talked to anybody in the White House about removing Fitzgerald."
Conyers's investigators apparently are not convinced. They've filed a civil-contempt lawsuit to force the White House to turn over documents about the U.S. attorney firings. In recent court papers, lawyers for the full House of Representatives charge that the White House has "stonewalled" efforts to sort out the U.S. attorney firings; they cite an e-mail disclosed last year showing that Rove visited the White House counsel's office in 2005 and asked "how we planned to proceed regarding US attorneys … he said the matter was urgent." (In the e-mail, Rove wanted to know if all the attorneys would be asked to resign "or only some of them.") Conyers, whose staff has been probing other allegations of White House meddling in criminal prosecutions, recently renewed a demand for Rove to testify. If he refuses to appear, Conyers said, "the committee is prepared to resort to compulsory process"—i.e., a subpoena.