By Michael Tarm Associated Press
CHICAGO — A multimillionaire who wielded enormous behind-the-scenes influence in Illinois for decades was convicted Tuesday of conspiring to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of “Million Dollar Baby,” one of the last chapters of the legal saga tied to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Businessman William Cellini, once known in political circles as the King of Clout because of top-tier contacts with Illinois governors of different parties and even a few U.S. presidents, tapped his folded hands on the edge of the defense table as the verdicts were read. His daughter Claudia, sitting nearby, fought to hold back tears, but Cellini maintained his outward calm.
The 76-year-old now faces up to 30 years in prison for conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding and abetting the solicitation of a bribe. Prosecutors say he plotted to extort a $1.5 million donation from Hollywood executive Thomas Rosenberg for Blagojevich’s campaign.
Convicting someone of Cellini’s stature should serve as a warning to businessmen and politicians to keep their noses clean, advocates of political reform said.
“Cellini was a legend, someone who worked in the shadows, someone who seemed bulletproof — untouchable,” said David Morrison of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “His conviction should tell anyone else who might think they are bulletproof that they are mistaken.”
Cellini, a Springfield Republican, was accused of joining Blagojevich confidants Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly and another man in 2004 to pressure Rosenberg for the donation. If he refused, prosecutors said, the group threatened to pull strings to ensure that $220 million in state pension funds earmarked for Rosenberg’s investment firm would be withheld.
Cellini did not speak to reporters as he left the Chicago courthouse with his wife Julie. But defense attorney Dan Webb said that jurors — 10 women and two men who deliberated for three days — had acquitted his client on two other counts, attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud.
“We obviously are going to appeal … and we are confident we have a substantial chance of getting the case reversed,” Webb said.
Cellini was the last person scheduled to go on trial as part of the federal investigation of Blagojevich’s administration, which was launched a decade ago by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.
After listening to the verdict himself from a rear spectators’ bench Tuesday, Fitzgerald told reporters that no one could contend Cellini’s actions amounted to fundraising or lobbying that merely skirted the line of illegality.
“What allows people to tell someone, ‘You can’t do business with the state of Illinois unless you pay up?”’ he asked. “That’s extortion, and there’s no gray area about that.”
As it had with others, it was Cellini’s association with Blagojevich that drew him into legal peril. He stood trial in the same courtroom where the impeached Democratic governor was convicted four months ago on a raft of charges, including seeking to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat.
Cellini’s month-long trial was a rare stint in the limelight. He never became a household name despite the wealth and the influence that earned him his nicknames, including the pope of Illinois politics.
Cellini, the son of a policeman, played piano in a dance band and taught high school physics before planting his foot in the door of state government with an appointment as Illinois’ transportation secretary in the early 1970s. Thereafter, he parlayed his state links to help earn tens of millions from real estate, casino and other ventures.
Outwardly affable, Cellini gained a reputation for his business savvy and sure-footedness, but also as someone who could make or break a person’s career with a phone call.
During her closing arguments, prosecutor Julie Porter played an FBI wiretap recording of a mirthful-sounding Cellini as he appeared to discuss the extortion. Porter focused jurors’ attention on one sound: Cellini’s laugh.
“That is what corruption sounds like,” she said.
Cellini wouldn’t have pocketed any money from the shakedown, but Porter said that by going along with it, he saw a chance to further ingratiate himself with the powers that be. The payoff he hoped for? “Continued access, continued clout, continued status.”
Webb, however, said Cellini got suckered into the plot, ending up “the ham in a ham sandwich.” Lead prosecutor Chris Niewoehner scoffed at that, telling jurors, “The defendant is not an accidental extortionist.”
At times, Cellini’s legal team seemed to stake its entire defense on hammering at the credibility of the government’s star witness — the fourth man in the plot — Stuart Levine. A board member on the $30 billion Teachers’ Retirement System that controlled the pension funds Rosenberg hoped to reinvest, Levine was the only witness to claim direct knowledge of Cellini’s involvement.
There was no lack of ammunition with which to attack Levine. On the stand, he admitted to being a serial swindler, once stooping so low as to cheat his dead friend’s estate out of $2 million. He spoke about abusing cocaine and other drugs for decades — sometimes at marathon parties.
Webb called Levine “a wack job.” “All you have is Levine’s word — which is worthless,” he added in his closing.
Levine has pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering, agreeing to cooperate in hopes of getting a lesser sentence. Rezko was convicted on multiple corruption counts in 2008 and is jailed awaiting sentencing. Kelly committed suicide in in 2009.
Associated Press writer Karen Hawkins contributed to this report.