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‘King of Clout’ Cellini called to account, but happy ending possible

Updated: November 16, 2011 9:47AM

Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg Deis kept it simple Wednesday as he outlined to a federal jury the prosecution’s case against Illinois power broker Bill Cellini.

Deis didn’t get all carried away trying to convince jurors that Cellini is the state’s almost mythic King of Clout long held in awe by political and media insiders, though that is the very reason that brought many of us to court.

Instead, Deis focused on the matters at hand: a man of influence, yes, accused of overstepping the bounds of the law in one specific instance in an effort to preserve his power and protect his business interests.

“It was a shakedown, plain and simple,” said Deis of the alleged scheme to extort a $1.5 million campaign donation from Chicago businessman and Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg.

If only it were that simple, I’d have more confidence that this trial will result in a conviction.

The fact is that this is a messy case, full of nuance and misdirection befitting a behind-the-scenes master like Cellini — with a victim in Rosenberg who may not be eager to help take down his old friend and with key evidence relying on the testimony of much-maligned co-conspirator Stuart Levine.

Then there’s the fact Cellini is being defended by one of the best lawyers in the country, Dan K. Webb, who came on like gangbusters in an opening to the jurors that must have sent them home wondering how they’ll ever sort this case out.

As the 77-year-old Cellini watched impassively from the defense table in a gray suit and pink striped tie, Webb told the jurors Cellini never even knew that Levine — working with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich fund-raisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly — had developed a plan to extort Rosenberg.

Moreover, Webb contends, Cellini actually worked to make sure Rosenberg’s real estate investment company received the $220 million teachers pension fund allocation that was the object of the alleged shakedown.

“This is a happy ending,” Webb said. “Cellini through his efforts made sure Rosenberg got his allocation, and he never had to make a political contribution to get it.”

He repeated the “happy ending” line several times, so I expect it to become a theme in the case, although obviously the only happy ending here for Cellini is if Webb can win an acquittal.

As with most of the criminal cases that grew out of the Blagojevich scandal, much of this trial will revolve around how jurors interpret what they hear on secret government wiretap recordings, some of which have been made public in earlier proceedings.

My own recollection of the tapes I’ve heard is that you certainly come away believing Cellini and Levine were up to no good. But it also occurred me there are gaps in what is explicitly stated on tape by Cellini that might allow someone to plausibly spin the kind of defense argument Webb is making.

Cellini, if you don’t know by now, is perhaps the state’s most powerful Republican never to hold major public office, a confidant of presidents and governors. He used their influence to mine both the state and federal government with his minions and then relied on the minions to help him tap government programs to build his business holdings — in real estate, casino gambling and pension investments, among others.

Then Blagojevich became governor, with Cellini working sub rosa, as is his preference, to raise money for the Democrat, breaking 26 years of Republican rule.

“To protect his interests, to make sure he had continued access, the defendant switched sides,” prosecutor Deis argued.

Prosecutors might want to be careful with that line of reasoning, because I think a more likely scenario is that, Republican or not, Cellini always covered his bases on all sides of the political spectrum — in Chicago as well as Springfield — and that Democrat Rosenberg was probably among those who were helpful to him in that regard at times.

Not many people in Illinois politics ever expected Cellini to go on trial, not even after he was indicted three years ago with Blagojevich and his bunch.

I’ve considered it a great step forward that the figures behind the curtain like Cellini and convicted former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak, who will also figure into this trial, are finally being held accountable.

But don’t make any reservations in Oxford for Cellini just yet. I’m afraid it’s not going to be quite that simple.

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