Addressing jurors just minutes after they were sworn in, a
prosecutor described the 76-year-old William Cellini as a
conspirator in an attempt to shake down the Oscar-winning producer
of "Million Dollar Baby" for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to
impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Cellini -- once known as The
King of Clout and the pope of Illinois politics -- used the
influence he accumulated over decades in the alleged squeeze,
prosecutor Greg Deis said.
"This case, ladies and gentleman, is about extortion," Deis said,
occasionally pointing at Cellini across the courtroom in a dark suit
and bright pink tie. Deis turned to look straight at the panelists
and added, "This is about abuse of power."
And Cellini, a Republican from Springfield, knew exactly what he was
doing, Deis said.
"The defendant didn't slip and fall into an extortion," he
continued. "He was in ... eyes wide open."
Not so, countered defense attorney Dan Webb. The former U.S.
attorney insisted others hatched the plot and ensnared an
"Cellini ended up feeling like ham in a ham sandwich," Webb told
jurors. "This man is charged with a crime of trying to extort (the
Hollywood executive). ... It never, ever happened."
Cellini is the last in a series of corruption trials that grew out
of a decade-long federal investigation of Blagojevich. In 2008,
Cellini became the 13th person linked to Blagojevich's governorship
to be indicted
Speaking slowly and deliberately, Deis accused Cellini of conspiring
with Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly and former
state board member Stuart Levine to try to squeeze Hollywood
executive Thomas Rosenberg. Cellini and his cohorts, he said,
planned to threaten Rosenberg's investment company with the loss of
$220 million in state pension money from the $30 billion Illinois
Teachers' Retirement System unless he made the donation.
As powerful as he was, Cellini didn't have to break down doors or
wield a baseball bat to deliver the squeeze on Rosenberg, Deis told
jurors: He simply had to tell Rosenberg that he hadn't contributed
enough money to Blagojevich.
"You have not done 'X' so you will not get 'Y,'" Cellini effectively
told Rosenberg, according to Deis.
Cellini built a reputation as bright and meticulous, earning tens of
millions from real estate, casino and even asphalt businesses. The
prosecutor pointed out that history to jurors, describing how
Cellini forged ties with top-tier politicians of both parties, going
back to the 1960s, and "used that influence to further his
Webb struck an indignant tone at times, though he never raised his
voice in anger. He said a handful of others stood to profit from a
shakedown of the movie producer, including Rezko, Kelly and Levine.
"But guess who wasn't going to get any money?" he asked jurors
rhetorically. "Mr. Cellini."
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If convicted of all the charges, included attempted extortion and
solicitation of a bribe, Cellini could face years in prison. Cellini
is currently free on a $1 million bond. He has denied any
Blagojevich was convicted earlier this year of corruption charges,
including allegations that he tried to sell or trade President
Barack Obama's old Senate seat.
As in Blagojevich's trial, FBI wiretaps will play a central role in
Cellini's trial, Deis explained to jurors. Prosecutors will play to
jurors what they say are incriminating conversations Cellini had
with Levine -- unbeknownst at the time to either man.
Fearing Rosenberg would blow the whistle, an increasingly nervous
Cellini and his fellow plotters eventually backed away and released
the pension money to the producer's company, Deis said.
During his opening statement, Webb attacked the credibility of
Levine, who will be the government's star witness, telling jurors
that Levine is an admitted user of cocaine, meth, LSD and other
Earlier, Deis tried to short-circuit the surprise to jurors about
Levine's past criminality and drug abuse by bringing it up. But he
insisted Levine will give jurors a credible, "inside view" of the
Cellini's job in the conspiracy, prosecutors say, was to call
Rosenberg and gently remind him he hadn't contributed to Blagojevich
even though his company had already received millions in teacher
pension funds. Others were to turn the screw in follow-up calls.
Prosecutors say Cellini agreed to the plan to fulfill an earlier
promise to steer big-time contributors to Rezko and Kelly in
exchange for them taking steps to ensure Cellini kept his profitable
contacts under the Democrat-led administration.
Webb was set to continue his opening statement Thursday morning,
followed by the prosecution calling its first witnesses.
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