|Sun-Times Photo of William Cellini|
Cellini, 76, was accused of trying to shake down investment firm owner Thomas Rosenberg, the producer of the Oscar-winning movie “Million Dollar Baby,” for a campaign contribution to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, in exchange for continued state pension business.
The jury of 10 women and two men reached its verdict after about two days of deliberating evidence following a 3 ½ week trial.
Prosecutors played secret FBI recordings of Cellini talking on the phone with Stuart Levine, a serial conman who was the government’s star witness and who testified for parts of six days.
Prosecutors said Cellini was a key member in a plot to shakedown Rosenberg. His motive, they said, was to please Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly and thus, retain Cellini’s decades-long reach into the governor’s office. Prosecutors argued Cellini delivered an extortionate message to Rosenberg in May 2004 that his firm would lose Teachers’ Retirement System pension business if he didn’t donate to Blagojevich. Rosenberg testified he angrily balked at the request.
“I told Bill that I would not be shaken down,” Rosenberg testified last week. “I told him I would stand on the corner of State and Madison and discuss this. ... I screamed and cursed. I wanted him to pass on the full level of my fury to Rezko and Kelly.” . . .While Cellini's political deals have largely been in the Land of Lincoln, he reached his influence into Indiana during the 1990s after Indiana legalized riverboat gambling. Cellini's Argosy Gaming, one of the first gaming companies to be awarded a riverboat gaming license in Illinois at Alton, won a gaming license for one of Indiana's first riverboat licenses at Lawrenceburg with the help of some of Indiana's big political insiders. Despite overwhelming evidence of corrupt activities surrounding the awarding of the Lawrenceburg license to Argosy, state and federal investigators under political pressure from the administration of Gov. Evan Bayh refused to pursue a criminal investigation. Cellini has profited more off politics in Illinois than any other man alive, earning hundreds of millions of dollars through his political insider deals mostly related to gaming and real estate investment deals, as well as the powerful lobbyist for the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association. His criminal conviction is a bigger deal in Illinois politics than the convictions of its two former governors because of the unprecedented political power he exercised within both political parties. Cellini arrogantly nicknamed himself "The Pope," a fact revealed during his trial that no doubt didn't play well with Catholic jurors. Jurors spent just two days deliberating before finding him guilty on two of the four charges.
The Springfield State Journal-Register has more on the conviction of the man the newspaper dubs the "King of Clout" here. "Outwardly affable, Cellini gained a reputation for his business savvy, hard work and sure-footedness - but also as someone to avoid crossing, someone who could make or break a person's career with a phone call," the newspaper writes. Cellini faces up to 30 years in prison. The Chicago Tribune has this reaction on Cellini's conviction from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald:
“In the quiet corridors in Chicago and Cook County and Springfield, a lot of backroom deals take place, and the fact that Bill Cellini was convicted today sends a very, very loud message,” Fitzgerald said.
The Terre Haute federal penitentiary will need to set up a dedicated wing at the prison to house convicted Illinois pols, including former Govs. George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, a former powerful Chicago alderman, "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak, and now the King of Clout, William Cellini.