William Cellini, once known as The King of Clout for the vast
influence he wielded in Illinois politics for decades, had no direct
dealings with the impeached ex-governor -- never talking on the
phone or holding meetings with him, attorney Dan Webb told jurors.
"Cellini never personally knew Blagojevich," he said.
Cellini, a 76-year-old Republican from Springfield, is accused of
conspiring to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million
Dollar Baby" for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to Blagojevich
-- though prosecutors don't claim any direct involvement by
Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat.
Cellini's is the last in a series of trials that grew out of a
decade-long investigation of Blagojevich, who was convicted of
multiple corruption counts earlier this year, including trying to
sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat.
Before resuming his opening statement Thursday morning, Webb
bitterly complained to presiding Judge James Zagel about a Cellini
nickname prosecutors mentioned in their opening remarks to jurors:
the pope of Illinois politics.
The moniker was inappropriate, Webb said, and all part of a push by
prosecutors to suggest to the jury that Cellini became rich
primarily from his state connections and not because of his business
"This is a huge issue," Webb boomed, referring to the judge's
pretrial ruling that the defense can't try to argue that business
skill accounted for Cellini's wealth. "For me to be handicapped ...
is unfair and wrong."
Zagel rejected Webb's request to broach the topic once jurors came
into the courtroom, saying whether Cellini was or wasn't good at
business was irrelevant to the shakedown allegation.
After Webb concluded his opening, prosecutors called their first
witness: a former executive director of the $30 billion Illinois
Teachers' Retirement System, Keith Bozarth.
say Cellini conspired with Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris
Kelly and former state board member Stuart Levine to squeeze movie
executive Thomas Rosenberg for a contribution by threatening his
investment company with the loss of $220 million in state money from
the pension system unless he made the donation.
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Bozarth, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, offered an overview
of how the pension system operated and recounted how Cellini came to meet him
around early 1999 to complain. Cellini complained that Bozarth seemed to have a
bias against investing in real estate, in which Cellini had an interest.
A second witness, Marvin Traylor Jr., who works for the Illinois
Asphalt Paving Association, also testified. Since 1973 Cellini has
been executive director of the Springfield-based association that
helps advocate on behalf of highway contractors.
Traylor described Cellini's depth of knowledge in the workings of
the state and his frequent political fundraising.
"My boss, he's a good, wise man," Traylor said.
In his opening statement Wednesday, prosecutor Greg Deis told jurors
Cellini's influence in the pension system was so great that he could
at times dictate how much of its money certain companies should
receive -- even though Cellini held no position at the agency.
Cellini, who is free on a $1 million bond, has pleaded not guilty to
the charges, which include attempted extortion.
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