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Bill Cellini has been connected in Illinois politics for a long time

Updated: December 3, 2011 8:22AM

Bill Cellini did nothing more than blink when his verdict was read Tuesday in U.S. District Judge James Zagel’s courtroom.

But I can promise you the word “guilty” sent a shudder through the rest of the Illinois political world, because if a powerful and cautious man like Cellini can go down, then a whole lot of lesser lights have to know they’re at risk.

For weeks now, we’ve been telling you about Cellini’s trial, trying to convince you what a big deal it was, and I suspect we still haven’t sold many of you. It’s as if Chicagoans have a hard time believing that a Springfield businessman could really be all that important in the scheme of things, that if he was so important he would have moved to Chicago.

Then maybe it will help if I emphasize that Cellini split his time between Springfield and Chicago, where he owned a luxury condo on Michigan Avenue and conducted many of his real estate development deals.

He was enough of a Chicago animal that he knew to use Mike Madigan and Ed Burke’s law firms for his real estate tax work, Near North’s Mike Segal for his insurance business (until Segal went to prison) and Mayor Richard M. Daley’s pal Michael Marchese as his partner in building shopping centers.

In a state where people get involved in politics mainly to a make a buck, nobody in the last half century used his political involvement as successfully as Cellini.

He began as a local politician in Springfield, parlayed that into a position as the state’s first transportation director under Gov. Richard Ogilvie, then used those connections to take over the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, making it the state’s most influential road-building lobby.

With the asphalt group as his power base, Cellini branched into real estate — at first leasing office space to the state and using government programs to build subsidized rental housing. His company, New Frontier, would grow exponentially into all phases of real estate development and management, much of it in the Chicago area.

The small fortune Cellini built from those endeavors turned into a real fortune when Illinois legalized riverboat gambling and Cellini obtained the first casino license in Alton, which also gave him a leg up to open casinos in other states.

Yet the most lucrative endeavor of all may have been the one federal prosecutors say got him into trouble trying to protect — a deal to invest hundreds of millions of dollars from the state’s teacher pension funds.

That’s just the CliffsNotes version of Cellini’s career, leaving out myriad other business dealings, such as his work as a lobbyist for companies trying to do state business.

One of those companies was Chicago HMO, where he may have gotten better acquainted with a fellow named Stuart Levine, the company’s special counsel and self-confessed payer of bribes. This would be the same Levine whose telephone calls caught on FBI wiretap would pull Cellini into the Rod Blagojevich scandal with the accusation that they tried to shake down Chicago businessman-turned-Hollywood developer Thomas Rosenberg for a campaign contribution to the then-governor.

If there’s another Bill Cellini waiting in the wings of Illinois politics, I don’t know about him, though there is never a shortage of wannabes — Tony Rezko being just the latest.

The guy who probably came closest to Cel­lini — in terms of successfully using political connections to make money — was Rosenberg, the person Cellini was convicted of extorting. Notably, the two regarded each other as equals. But Rosenberg has moved his career in another direction: out-of-state.

Defense attorney Dan Webb tried to spin the split verdict to his favor, arguing Cellini was “very pleased” because he’d been acquitted of “what we thought were the two most serious charges.”

Sorry, but a guilty verdict is a guilty verdict, especially when one of the charges carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Cellini won’t face nearly that much time, but prison looms as a strong possibility, despite Webb’s promise to appeal.

The length and breadth of Cellini’s influence in Illinois government didn’t just happen overnight. Neither will it be erased in a day with his conviction. But it’s a good start.

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