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Cellini trial opens with dueling portraits: extortionist or unwitting victim

Springfield,Ill businessman William Cellini as he arrives at the Federal Building for opening arguments in his corruption trial. Wednesday, October 5, 2011. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

Hands folded before him, wearing a pink tie and a plain expression, Springfield’s ultimate power broker sat calmly in a federal courtroom as government prosecutors painted him as an extortionist who used state employees as his puppets.

William Cellini, whose companies over the last several decades won hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts, sometimes gently kicked his legs as he listened to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Deis tell jurors that Cellini worked “beneath the surface” to control how state money was doled out.

Cellini, 77, is accused of conspiring to extort Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, allegedly telling him he had to cough up campaign cash for then-Gov. Blagojevich if his firm wanted to win $220 million in state work from the Teachers’ Retirement System.

“This case is about extortion. It’s about abuse of power,” Deis said. “It was a shakedown, ladies and gentleman, plain and simple.”

Cellini’s high-powered attorney, Dan Webb – once the U.S. Attorney in Chicago who famously headed the “Operation Greylord” judicial corruption investigation – took shots at the government’s case, saying Cellini and Rosenberg were friends for more than 30 years, and he took part in no such extortion.

Webb said the government’s case hung on the word of a lifelong con artist and drug user, Stuart Levine.

“He’s the only witness in this case who will say Bill Cellini joined in an extortion scheme,” Webb said.

Webb already began his work in tearing at Levine’s credibility, telling jurors they will be “flabbergasted” by the man’s double life as a TRS board member who also took part in night long drug binges at the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood.

Webb portrayed Levine, the prosecution’s top witness, as using Cellini to deliver a message to Rosenberg, with whom Levine had been feuding. He said Cellini did not know of an extortion plot that Webb said was hatched by Levine and two top fund-raisers of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Cellini was “feeling like he was the ham in a ham sandwich,” when he learned of it,” Webb said.

But Deis said wiretaps between Cellini and Levine will show Cellini was fully involved in the scheme: “eyes wide open.” Cellini had motive, according to Deis. It was to retain the longtime Republican supporter’s access and influence in Springfield, despite a change in gubernatorial party leadership to the Democrats for the first time in 26 years.

To protect his interests, Cellini helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Blagojevich, Deis said.

The only way to maintain his access though, was to get close to Blagojevich’s closest advisers – businessman Tony Rezko and fund-raiser Christopher Kelly – Deis said. Rezko was convicted in 2008 of using his influence with Blagojevich to make money off of state deals. Kelly was indicted three times by the government before taking his own life.

“If you wanted to be on Rezko and Kelly’s team, you sometimes had to get your hands dirty, and [Cellini] knew that,” Deis said.

When Rosenberg balked at Cellini’s alleged extortion and threatened to go to authorities with it, Cellini wanted TRS to “punish” Rosenberg by giving his firm, Capri Capital, just $25 million instead of $220 million.

Webb though, said that it was Rosenberg who came to Cellini looking for help getting TRS business.

“This story has a happy ending,” Webb told jurors. Rosenberg got his $220 million without making a donation to Blagojevich.