Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Illinois' Most Powerful Political Deal Maker Guilty On Extortion And Bribery Charges

Sun-Times Photo of William Cellini
The most powerful behind-the-scenes political power broker in Illinois has been found guilty by a federal jury in Chicago on extortion and bribery charges. William Cellini stood accused of conspiring with political fixers Tony Rezko, Christopher Kelly and Stuart Levine to shake down the producer of the Oscar award-winning movie, "Million Dollar Baby," for campaign contributions for the campaign committee of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The group of political insiders told Thomas Rosenberg he would have to ante up campaign contributions for Blagojevich's campaign committee if his investment firm wanted to continue receiving its share of investments from the state's Teachers Retirement Fund. Rezko is behind bars for his earlier convictions. Kelly died from an apparent suicide following his conviction. Levine and Blagojevich are awaiting sentencing for their earlier convictions. And now Cellini has met the same fate after a jury found him guilty on charges of conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding in the solicitation of a bribe, while it found him not guilty of mail fraud and attempted extortion charges. From the Sun-Times:

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.

Barack Obama pictured with Stuart Levine, one of the conspirators in the shakedown of Rosenberg and a key witness in Cellini's trial. Levine admitted to a long-time drug problem that included all-night parties at Chicago's infamous Purple Hotel with young gay men he paid to have sex with him. On secretly-recorded conversations, Levine and Cellini snickered as they discussed shaking down Rosenberg for campaign contributions. At the end of the secretly-recorded call, the two men spoke of their love for the other. Both men are married with children, although Levine's wife divorced him after learning of his adulterous affairs with other men. Levine said he had amassed a fortune of nearly $80 million through corrupt insider political deals, all of which he subsequently lost. He now sells electronic cigarettes at a suburban Chicago shopping mall for a living.

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