The Chicago Sun-Times reported Monday that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich granted clemency to Oak Park restaurateur Anan Abu-Taleb, who owns Maya del Sol, in December 2006 for a tax fraud scheme he committed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Abu-Taleb, a longtime Oak Parker, has confessed and paid restitution for those crimes, but his clemency came before at least 20 people who have been exonerated, according to the article.

The article also details political contributions to Blagojevich from several lawyers connected to Abu-Taleb. It contains stark pay-to-play implications but lacks direct evidence that Abu-Taleb willfully participated in political corruption.

The director of Northwestern University’s Center for Wrongful Convictions is quoted in the article saying it’s “pretty obvious” that Abu-Taleb’s clemency resulted from political favoritism. But Abu-Taleb himself is not quoted in the article, and there is no mention of any attempts to reach him. Attorneys who represented Abu-Taleb denied in the article that anything skewed the clemency petition.

The Sun-Times article may say more about Illinois’s political culture – where guilt by association may be just as common as guilt itself – than it does about Abu-Taleb. High-level, nonpartisan political contributions are routine in Illinois, which places no limits on giving. It’s near impossible to distinguish corruption from routine governance when everyone is paying and playing.

Abu-Taleb spoke with Wednesday Journal several times since the Sun-Times article was published, but agreed to be quoted only from e-mail.

“I would suggest you examine the top 10 law firms in Chicago and see how much they contribute to both Rep and Dem and I suspect you will find most of them do,” Abu-Taleb wrote.

In fact, one of the law firms in question, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, which according to the Sun-Times gave Blagojevich more than $207,000 between 2002 and 2007, also gave tens of thousands to Blagojevich’s political rivals. The Sun-Times article does not mention the combined $56,000 that the firm gave to Lisa and Michael Madigan in the same time period.

Sun-Times reporter Dave McKinney did not immediately return a phone call to Wednesday Journal about those contributions.

The gifts include $25,000 to State Attorney General Lisa Madigan between 2002 and 2003. According to the Sun-Times, Madigan’s office actually opposed clemency for Abu-Taleb, whose actions the office described as “calculated illegal conduct.”

“There is no more causal connection between my case and Mayer Brown contributions than other firms,” Abu-Taleb wrote. His e-mail acknowledges his crime.

“In 1989, I made a very bad mistake of under-reporting income taxes. The unpaid taxes amounted to $4,057.00. To rectify my mistake, I pled guilty, amended my returns and paid all the unpaid taxes, interest and penalties,” Abu-Taleb wrote.

The Sun-Times reported Abu-Taleb “illegally pocketed profits from a chain of pizzerias in 1989 and 1990, shorting the state of sales taxes and another business of franchise fees.” Abu-Taleb paid $8,732 in restitution, according to the Sun-Times, and his 1994 guilty plea prevented him from later holding a liquor license.

Abu-Taleb’s cousin-in-law, John Gearen, is a longtime partner in Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, according to the Sun-Times, as well as a $1,000 donor to Blagojevich in 2003. Gearen was a character witness in Abu-Taleb’s clemency petition, but the firm never actually represented him.

Rieck & Crotty, one of the firms that did represent Abu-Taleb in the clemency process, according to the Sun-Times, contributed more than $23,000 to Blagojevich with cash and in-kind donations in 2001 and 2002. That was at least one year before Abu-Taleb filed his petition.

Reick & Crotty has made relatively few political contributions – 11 since 2001. None of its other gifts compare in size to those given to Blagojevich, and the firm did not make any contributions whatsoever between 2002 and 2006.

Abu-Taleb wrote that seeking a pardon is a constitutional right, and that he did so to clear his name given “the kind and magnitude of the mistake.”

Wednesday Journal asked Abu-Taleb whether he believed his petition would succeed.

“I had no idea, but I had to try,” Abu-Taleb wrote in response. “We waited three years for the governor’s decision.”

Abu-Taleb opened Maya del Sol at 144 S. Oak Park Ave. in October 2007. He owns Pizza Capri in Chicago and was the owner of Vivaldi, the Italian restaurant that had previously been at the Maya del Sol space.

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