Rezko letters hint at 'pressure' by lawmaker over hospital expansion

  • State Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock

    State Rep. Jack Franks of Woodstock

 
By Rob Olmstead
Daily Herald Staff
Updated 3/11/2008 9:08 PM

The Illinois public got its first look Tuesday at a series of letters state administrators wrote under pressure from state Rep. Jack Franks, who urged them to back the private interests of his client, Mercy Hospital, in its 2003 quest to build a Crystal Lake facility.

The letters came to light during testimony at the trial of Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a former fundraiser for Gov. Rod Blagojevich accused of using his clout to elicit kickbacks from those seeking business with the state.

 

One of the deals Rezko is accused of being involved with is giving permission to Mercy Hospital to build a facility in Crystal Lake.

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Under state procedure, hospitals seeking to build new facilities must first obtain permission from the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board. Prosecutors charge that Rezko and Stuart Levine, a member of the health facilities board in 2003, conspired to extort a $1.5 million bribe from Jacob Kieferbaum, the proposed builder of the hospital.

Levine and Kieferbaum have already pleaded guilty. Rezko maintains Levine is lying about him in an effort to appease prosecutors and stay out of prison for life.

Franks, who is also a lawyer, was the attorney for the hospital at the time it was seeking approval. He asked several state department heads to write official letters expressing their support for the hospital. At least five did.

Franks maintains he solicited their help as a private citizen on behalf of a client, not in his capacity as state representative.

But one of the letters admitted into evidence Tuesday, written by Illinois Department of Revenue Director Brian Hamer said, "I am writing at the request of Representative Jack Franks." That use of Franks' title as a legislator would reflect the feeling of several department heads, who said in previous published interviews they felt Franks was putting the strong-arm on them as a state representative, not a private lawyer.

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Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, stressed Tuesday that he made it explicitly clear to the letter recipients that he was acting on behalf of his client and not as a lawmaker.

"These issues came up years ago when Blagojevich and his cronies were looking for a scapegoat, and it didn't fly then," Franks said. "That's because there's nothing to it. I've done nothing wrong and I've never been implicated in any wrongdoing."

He said his letters asked the officials to take a look at the plan and gave his reasons why he believed it was a good project. He said he clearly wrote that "if" they shared his opinion of the project, he would be grateful if they wrote a letter endorsing it.

In testimony Tuesday, the Illinois Department of Public Health's Don Jones testified that his staff told planning board members that a facility in Crystal Lake was not needed.

Despite the letters of support, the plan at first was unanimously defeated, but later, in an unusual meeting in April 2004, the board changed its mind and voted for it.

During that meeting, a key board member passed when called to vote, but then changed his vote after Levine whispered in his ear, thus giving the project the minimum five votes it needed to pass, Jones testified.

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