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Letters document Cellini’s clout with presidents dating to Ford

William Cellini who was delegate from Springfield gives one several speeches seconding nominatiGerald Ford for president 1976 Republican National Convention.

William Cellini, who was a delegate from Springfield, gives one of several speeches seconding the nomination of Gerald Ford for president at the 1976 Republican National Convention. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: November 15, 2011 12:43PM

In 1976, “I have a couple of requests — political and personal.”

So begins a March 11, 1976, letter from William F. Cellini, the longtime behind-the-scenes power in Illinois government, to Douglas Bennett, the personnel director for then-President Gerald Ford.

Then as now, Cellini — who’s on trial in Chicago in a federal corruption case linked to convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich — ran the clout-heavy Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association road-builders group.

The letter to the Ford White House is among correspondence from, or to, Cellini now in the collections of the presidential libraries of Ford and of former President George H.W. Bush. They demonstrate how the Springfield businessman’s political clout extended to Washington, where Cellini was counted on to deliver Republican votes for president.

In the 1976 letter to Bennett, Cellini asks to be appointed to the proposed National Transportation Policy Study Commission. He mentions, too, that he has “a list of good qualified people as long as my arm” who could serve with him on the commission.

During the Ford administration, Cellini, now 76, had two key roles, according to a March 18, 1976, letter written by the Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Adams. Cellini oversaw all federal appointments in Illinois. And he also ran the president’s ultimately failed reelection campaign against Jimmy Carter in all of Illinois except for Cook County.

The presidential libraries’ collections also show that Cellini received personal letters from Ford and the first President Bush, including an Aug. 26, 1992, note in which Bush apologized to Cellini for an unexplained “foul-up” the previous day during the president’s visit to the Illinois State Fair.

Cellini — a onetime high-school physics teacher who has made millions of dollars on state-financed deals — went on trial last week in federal court in Chicago on charges that accuse him of trying tto extort campaign contributions for Blagojevich, one of the few Democrats Cellini supported. Cellini had become friendly with top Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko, who has since been convicted on federal corruption charges. Cellini and Rezko took their wives to a 2003 Christmas party at the White House hosted by then-President George W. Bush.

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