BY NATASHA KORECKI, CHRIS FUSCO AND LYNN SWEET Staff Reporters
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. directed a major political fund-raiser to offer former Gov. Rod Blagojevich millions of dollars in campaign cash in return for an appointment to the U.S. Senate, sources said the fund-raiser has told federal authorities.
The allegation by Oak Brook businessman Raghuveer Nayak counters public statements made as recently as last week by Jackson that he never authorized any deal to attempt to buy the Senate seat.
Nayak also told authorities he paid for two airline trips for a "social acquaintance" of the Democratic congressman at Jackson's request, raising more potential ethical and political problems for Jackson.
The FBI interviewed that acquaintance -- a Washington, D.C., restaurant hostess named Giovana Huidobro -- about a year ago as part of its corruption probe of Blagojevich. Authorities were trying to determine whether Jackson had asked Nayak to offer Blagojevich campaign cash in exchange for the then-governor appointing Jackson to the seat once held by President Obama, according to sources with knowledge of the probe.
Huidobro, Jackson and Nayak all dined together on Oct. 8, 2008 -- the same day that Nayak has told authorities he had a key conversation with Jackson about the Senate appointment, sources said. The three then ended up at Ozio, the restaurant and club where Huidobro works and where Jackson has held fund-raisers.
Huidobro told authorities she knew nothing of Jackson's political dealings regarding the Senate seat, according to sources. She also said she flew to Chicago on several occasions at Jackson's request and that Jackson sometimes reimbursed her for her travels.
Nayak told the FBI that he paid for two airline trips for Huidobro from Washington to Chicago in 2008.
Through a spokesman, Jackson declined to comment for this story.
Jackson does not appear to have reported the flights for Huidobro as a gift on his House financial-disclosure statement, and it's unclear whether he violated any ethics or fund-raising laws by not doing so.
He was once considered a potential presidential candidate and now is discussing a bid to succeed Mayor Daley. His wife, Ald. Sandi Jackson (7th), also has been mentioned as a possible mayoral candidate, though she downplayed her chances of running during a jobs rally she attended Monday.
In a radio interview about the mayor's race last week, Jackson challenged federal prosecutors to "bring it on" if they have evidence he was a conspirator in Blagojevich's corruption case.
The Sun-Times has been investigating the new allegations since the beginning of the year.
Jackson repeatedly has denied any wrongdoing, including making any offers to Blagojevich in exchange for the Senate-seat appointment.
Nayak, however, has told investigators a different story.
Before he dined with Huidobro and Jackson on Oct. 8, 2008, Nayak said he had a critical conversation with the congressman about the seat while the two were alone. Nayak, also a former Blagojevich fund-raiser, said that Jackson asked him to tell Blagojevich that if the then-governor appointed Jackson to the U.S. Senate, Chicago's Indian community would raise $1 million for Blagojevich and -- after Jackson was appointed -- Jackson would raise $5 million for the then-governor.
The Oak Brook businessman had been in Washington for a bill signing regarding U.S.-India relations. Jackson picked up Nayak from the White House, where they posed for a picture together. The photo was entered into evidence during Blagojevich's summer trial.
The FBI's August 2009 interview with Huidobro came after Nayak, who was cooperating with authorities, submitted credit card bills to show he twice purchased airline tickets to fly her from Washington to Chicago, in October and December of 2008, sources said.
In a March 2009 FBI interview, Jackson described Huidobro as a "social acquaintance," sources said. Jackson also acknowledged to authorities he met with Nayak on Oct. 8, 2008, but he told federal agents he never authorized Nayak to make any offer to Blagojevich regarding the Senate seat.
In a brief telephone interview early last week, Huidobro replied "How did you get my name?" when asked about Jackson, Nayak, the Senate seat and trips to Chicago. She told a reporter she would call later on but hasn't returned calls since.
Approached at Ozio Monday night, Huidobro refused to talk to a reporter.
Nayak's lawyer, Thomas McQueen, confirmed that his client discussed with the FBI the Oct. 8 meeting and provided documents to authorities involving his dealings with Jackson.
Jackson has not been charged with any crime. Nor has Nayak, who contributed $12,000 to Jackson's congressional campaign between 2001 and 2006. Nayak faces his own federal scrutiny, including a current IRS inquiry involving his business dealings with state official and fund-raiser Rajinder Bedi.
Nayak is a family friend of the congressman and his father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Nayak also has been a business partner with the congressman's brother Jonathan Jackson.
Congressional ethics investigators began an inquiry into Jackson last year but suspended it in mid-September 2009 after authorities told them the inquiry might interfere with "pending criminal proceedings and ongoing investigation." Ethics officials have since declined to comment about the status of the Jackson inquiry, as has the FBI and U.S. attorney's office.
Prosecutors charged the former governor with trying to trade a Senate -seat appointment to Jackson in exchange for what Blagojevich believed to be a $1.5 million offer.
At Blagojevich's trial, Bedi said he, Jackson and Nayak were present at an Oct. 28 meeting at which fund-raising for Blagojevich was discussed in exchange for Jackson's appointment.
But at the previously undisclosed Oct. 8 meeting, Nayak told authorities that Jackson directed him to approach the Blagojevich camp with an offer of $5 million and $1 million.
At trial, Robert Blagojevich, Friends of Blagojevich chair, said he was twice approached by Indian fund-raisers offering money for Jackson. He testified that Nayak had offered the $6 million for Jackson.
Contributing: Abdon Pallasch