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Springfield power broker Cellini guilty of extortion, aiding bribery

William Cellini left longtime behind-the-scenes power broker Illinois government leaves court with his lawyer Dan Webb after guilty verdict Dirksen

William Cellini, left, the longtime, behind-the-scenes power broker in Illinois government, leaves court with his lawyer, Dan Webb, after a guilty verdict at Dirksen Federal Building, Tuesday, November 1, 2011. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 3, 2011 8:12AM

For decades, William Cellini was feared and respected at the highest reaches of state government — advising governors, screening state Cabinet officials, controlling federal appointments and winning tens of millions of dollars in state contracts even as players bowed to him as “the pope.”

When it came to a federal jury, though, “the pope’s” prayers went unanswered.

On Tuesday, 10 women and two men convicted the Springfield millionaire in an extortion conspiracy scheme involving the shakedown of a Hollywood producer.

In the courtroom, Cellini’s daughter, Claudia, dropped toward her knees when she heard the first guilty verdict. Neither Cellini, who turns 77 on Saturday, nor his wife, Julie, showed reaction to the guilty verdicts on two charges.

“What really got him was the wiretaps,” juror Candy Chiles said. “It was right there. . . . All the evidence was overwhelming . . . He did the crime, and when you do the crime you have to do the time.”

Chiles, 50, a day care provider from the South Side, said the jury spent several days reviewing wiretaps and documents before deciding that Cellini was guilty of conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding and abetting the solicitation of a bribe.

After rendering their verdict, about half a dozen jurors assembled at the downtown bar Elephant & Castle to toast the conclusion of the case. Several said that tapes, documents and testimony all factored into their decision.

Cellini 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, “a brick” would be lifted from Rosenberg’s stalled pension business before the Teachers’ Retirement System board.

Cellini’s defense insisted it was serial con man, drug abuser and pension board member Stuart Levine who concocted the extortion scheme with Blagojevich fund-raisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, then duped Cellini into delivering a message to his longtime friend Rosenberg.

Jurors didn’t buy it though.

“I really believe he extorted,” juror Paulette Green of Round Lake Park said of Cellini. “I don’t think he went in it wanting to. I believe it just happened.”

Green said it was clear from Rosenberg’s angry testimony last week that he felt shaken down.

“Oh, he knew it,” she said.

Rosenberg testified that he balked after Cellini told him his business was held up because he hadn’t contributed to Blagojevich. Rosenberg said Cellini himself never asked him for a campaign contribution.

Prosecutors said Cellini’s motive was to please Rezko and Kelly to retain his decades-long reach into the governor’s office — even with a Democrat at the helm. Cellini is heard on tape saying he’s a “nervous wreck” as he relayed his conversation with Rosenberg to Levine. He then proposed an alternate plan: that Rosenberg win some state business, but just $20 million, instead of $220 million in TRS investments.

Jurors said that evidence helped convince them of Cellini’s guilt.

Cellini, who lunched at the Renaissance Hotel after his conviction, faces a maximum of 30 years in prison on convictions that his attorney Dan Webb vowed would be overturned on appeal.

Cellini was found not guilty of two other counts, attempted extortion and mail and wire fraud.

After the verdict, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, on crutches because of a football injury, said Cellini’s actions were clear: He told Rosenberg he had to pay up or his state business would be cut off.

“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.

Webb though said his client was found not guilty of charges that he viewed as most serious.

“I’m very grateful that the jury appears to have agreed and at least has thrown out the most serious charges against Mr. Cellini,” he said.

Jurors said they carefully considered Levine’s word, looking for corroboration in the evidence, but didn’t disregard it. Chiles called Levine “unbelievable.”

“It was clear [Cellini] was the mastermind,” Chiles said. “He outsmarted all of them. He let them basically do all the dirty work. But in the end there were flaws that he couldn’t overcome on the wiretaps.”

Contributing: Abdon M. Pallasch, Kim Janssen, Tim Novak, Mark Konkol, Adeshina Emmanuel

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