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Stroger calls for review of Rezko-linked contractor

Thursday, March 17, 2005
Special to

Cook County Board President John Strogerís administration Thursday abruptly ordered a new review of whether a minority contractor whoís about to be stripped of his business with the city of Chicago ought to also lose a lucrative pact he has with the county.

Citing new information that has come to our attention, Mr. Strogerís spokeswoman said officials will further study whether contractor Jabir Herbert Muhammad is entitled to a minority-business contract to provide telephone service at Cook County jail.

Only a day earlier, Mr. Strogerís office said it was confident that the Muhammad-owned Crucial Communications LLP deserved the work, even though city officials say they believe a sister Muhammad company, Crucial, Inc., serves as a front for Antoin Rezko.

Mr. Rezko has been a top fund-raiser for President Stroger and Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and franchises Panda Express fast-food outlets in the Chicago area. He and Mr. Muhammad have a long-standing business relationship.

Mr. Strogerís spokeswoman said the review could force the county to rework the jail contract, in which Crucial operates pay phones for inmates in partnership with SBC Communications, Inc.

The spokeswoman did not identify what new information has surfaced since yesterday. But news accounts have indicated that Mr. Muhammad lately has been too ill to personally operate Crucial, Inc. day to day.

In addition, County Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin earlier Thursday wrote Mr. Stroger asking him to doublecheck Crucialís status. And Crainís reported new details on the relationship between Messers Muhammad and Rezko.

Crucial, Inc., operates restaurants at OíHare International Airport. It got that deal because it was certified under a minority-business program. But city officials earlier this week said they have determined the company is partially owned and effectively operated by Mr. Rezko.

Similarly, Crucial Communications holds the jail contract under provisions of the countyís minority-business program.

Mr. Rezkoís name does not show up on any records having to do with Crucial Communications, according to Mr. Strogerís office. However, Illinois Secretary of State records indicate that both Crucial Communications and Crucial, Inc., share the same mailing address, 409 W. Huron St. in Chicago.

Thatís the same address from which Mr. Rezko operates his Panda Express chain, according to County commissioners Suffredin and Forrest Claypool.

Phone records include a listing for Panda Express at the Huron St. address, but calls to the number get a recording saying the line is inoperable.

Mr. Rezko has been out of the country and unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman.

Roxanne Jackson, Mr. Muhammadís attorney, said that while he has been ill for some time now, he is involved in, and in charge of, Crucial Communications on a day-to-day basis.

Ms. Jackson said Crucial, Inc., is a legitimate minority firm, and said she believes city officials will reverse their stance after upcoming meetings.

Crucial Communicationsí latest county contract was approved two years ago amid stiff fire from Mr. Suffredin and others that the firm and SBC charge excessive rates for prisoners to make collect calls to their families.

Orlando Jones, Mr. Strogerís godson and former chief of staff, said he is not aware of any financial stake Mr. Rezko may have in Crucial Communications, but said Messrs. Rezko and Muhammad know and work together.

Tony and Muhammad have been business partners for years in various business ventures, said Mr. Jones, in a phone interview.

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