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How Stuart Levine — a thief and con man — became star witness

Stuart Levine leaves Dirksen Federal Building August 2011.  |  Sun-Times file photo

Stuart Levine leaves the Dirksen Federal Building in August 2011. | Sun-Times file photo

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Updated: April 17, 2012 10:20AM

To most people, Stuart Levine probably appears unassuming enough.

At 65, he works at a kiosk in a suburban shopping mall selling electronic cigarettes.

But if the man helping bring down some of the most powerful people in the state hoped to disappear into suburban obscurity, that hasn’t quite happened.

Some days while behind that kiosk, the former Highland Park resident once worth $70 million gets hecklers.

Those are the people who recognize the now minimum-wage-earning Levine, having had a glimpse of his lurid history, painstakingly laid bare in public twice after Levine has spent parts of 21 days testifying in two high-profile criminal trials in Chicago.

He most recently sat as the star witness in the federal trial of Springfield power broker William Cellini.

If Cellini is convicted, the much-reviled Levine will have been central to sending some of the most prominent and back-room politicos to prison. That includes Tony Rezko, a onetime political fund-raiser to Barack Obama. Levine was the star witness in Rezko’s 2008 trial, which led to his conviction.

Levine wore a wire against Ed Vrdolyak, a onetime alderman and behind-the-scenes political force for decades. Vrdolyak ended up pleading guilty to taking part in a $1.5 million bribery scheme.

Then there’s former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose corruption investigation stemmed from a probe into corruption involving state boards that blossomed with Levine. Once he flipped, Levine spent years getting debriefed by various teams of federal agents and prosecutors.

“This was a massive undertaking,” said Levine’s lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, of his client’s role in cooperating since 2004. “You’re talking about analyzing activities of the entire state government and having to understand who and what and how it worked and figuring out from the government’s standpoint who was culpable and who wasn’t.”

Drugs and scams

On a recent day in federal court, a quiet settled over the courtroom as Stuart Levine answered questions about his past.

It wasn’t just the drug-binge parties and snorting 10 lines of animal tranquilizer mixed with crystal meth at the Purple Hotel that stunned the courtroom.

It was an interminable list of scams that one man was able to pull off for decades.

Did he steal $6 million from one charity, keep half and never pay it back?

“Yes,” he said plainly.

Levine, wearing an ill-fitting suit and glasses, was asked if he rewarded a dying friend who entrusted him with his estate by stealing $2 million from the dead man’s children. “Yes,” he said.

He’d answer “yes” to handing out bribes to politicians, to school board members, to a postal union worker and to using his position on state boards to work kickback deals amounting to millions of dollars. Levine even admitted that once the FBI caught him and he swore to tell the truth, he initially lied about Vrdolyak. Was that because, even while under FBI scrutiny, he still wanted to secretly take part in a $1.5 million kickback scheme with Vrdolyak? Levine answered predictably: “Yes.”

“This man, every time he has ever been trusted to do anything, has lied, cheated and stolen his way through life,” Cellini’s attorney, Dan Webb told jurors last week.

Defense lawyers have repeatedly lambasted the government for pitting Levine, someone who has admitted to conning people out of millions of dollars, against defendants who aren’t accused of pocketing any money.

Webb noted Levine spent the better part of his adult life committing reprehensible crimes, then pointed to an on-screen timeline: the evidence tied to the criminal allegations against Cellini spanned just a few days in May of 2004.

“Levine is a whack-job. Okay?” Webb told them.

In his 2008 closing argument, Rezko’s attorney, Joseph Duffy, said Levine had spent decades living a double-life and fooling the world. It didn’t end when he faced natural life in prison with no possibility of parole after admitting to all of his crimes, Duffy argued.

“They are trained to suspect deception, and he conned them,” Duffy said of the government. “He got the better of them, and he got his deal.”

Levine’s deal calls for a prison term of five years, seven months.

Duffy dismissed secret recordings on which the government has built its case as equally unreliable.

“If someone is a liar and thief and a drug user and a con-man,” Duffy argued, “does it make a difference if he’s live or on Memorex?”

But there’s another side of the story, prosecutors say: there are few “choir boys” that can expose Illinois’ odorous underworld.

“Flippers like Levine, you don’t see them too often. He’s an anomaly,” said former federal prosecutor Jeff Cramer. “The government would have preferred to have put an honest man on the stand. The problem is that defendants who are on tape trying to extort money never conspire with honest men.”

But many believed he was an honest man. Levine was appointed to state boards by three different governors and served on hospital and charitable boards. He served on the Illinois Gaming Board when it famously denied Rosemont a casino license.

While abusing drugs, he served on a board that operated drug rehab centers.

Tom Rosenberg, allegedly the victim of attempted extortion in the Cellini case, said he didn’t see repeated attempted shakedowns from Levine as greed-driven. It appeared to be more for sport.

“He wanted to compromise me,” Rosenberg testified last week.

Testimony at trial showed Levine routinely schemed for kickbacks while serving on state boards, including the Teachers’ Retirement System. In 2004, when he left the board, he didn’t give the real reason: the FBI had come knocking on his door and played tapes of him secretly scheming to make kickbacks off board business.

Fellow board members, still in the dark, viewed him as a philanthropist.

“Stuart distinguished himself by his grace, self-deprecating humor, reasoned opinions, and civil debate,” fellow board members wrote in a resolution after he resigned. They also said he was “known for his sharing of time, talent, and, treasure through philanthropic endeavors that have earned him international recognition.”

Levine’s lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, said he’s worked on rehabilitation through church, therapy, meditation and his minimum-wage job.

Levine, now divorced and millions of dollars in debt to the government and others, at times gets heckled when he’s recognized at work, Steinback said.

“Virtually anybody he was ever associated with him at that time has turned their back on him, shunned him, ignored him,” Steinback said. “He once lived in a beautiful home by a lake. There were times in this investigation where he couldn’t pay his rent, where he couldn’t pay for food. Where the only job he could get was being a public messenger.”

Steinback said Levine has endured some of the toughest and most embarrassing cross examinations without complaint.

“You would be hard-pressed to find an individual more self-effacing, more willing to be honest with himself to confront his own personal demons and try to do something about it in a positive way,” Steinback said.

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