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Powerbroker gets 1 year in prison in movie producer shakedown

William F. Cellini arrives Dirksen Federal Building Chicago Ill. Thursday October 4 2012 with his wife Julie (left) their daughter

William F. Cellini arrives at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, October 4, 2012, with his wife, Julie (left), and their daughter Claudia. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:22AM

It was a day few people believed would ever come — the day the man known as state government’s “King of Clout” was sentenced to federal prison time.

But by the time crooked multi-millionaire political insider William Cellini finally reports to prison on January 4, he’ll be 78.

And his advanced age and serious health problems Thursday helped convince U.S. District Court Judge James Zagel to sentence Cellini to just one year and one day — far below the eight year sentence prosecutors had sought and the three-and-a half to four year sentence guidelines that Zagel himself said applied.

The judge blamed the old man’s vanity for his role in a 2004 attempt to shakedown a Hollywood producer for a campaign donation to disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich but said a lifetime of good deeds counted in Cellini’s favor.

“It’s in the nature of the culture of Springfield, and for that matter, Washington, that people like to be able to be thought of as having influence and being able to open doors,” Zagel told a courtroom packed with Cellini’s friends and family. “That’s something that’s very hard to give up, even when you’re ageing.”

Given Cellini’s many years of political experience, Zagel said, it was no accident when he became involved in “a bad deed” to extort campaign cash from “Million Dollar Baby” producer Tom Rosenberg.

The prison term — delayed until January so that the Bureau of Prisons can plan for any health emergencies the frail Cellini may suffer — is likely the last handed to a major political player under Operation Board Games, the nine-year federal probe that also saw Blagojevich and other figures including attorney Ed Vrdolyak convicted.

It brings to an end Cellini’s long career as one of the most powerful but least well-known political figures in Illinois.

For four decades, regardless of whether Republicans or Democrats were officially in power, he quietly wielded influence over state government, advising governors, screening gubernatorial appointments, controlling federal appointments and winning tens of millions of dollars in state contracts.

He showed little emotion as Zagel formally brought that reign to an end Thursday, accepting tearful hugs from his wife, Julie, and daughter, Claudia, moments after the sentence was handed down.

His attorney Dan Webb had urged probation, arguing that Cellini’s many acts of charity should be counted against “a few phone calls made over a week.” Cellini has suffered two heart attacks and other ailments including prostate cancer, meaning even a one year prison term is “tantamount to a life sentence,” Webb said.

For decades feared as “The Pope” of state government, Cellini himself had broken his long silence about the case to address the judge in a plea for mercy, telling Zagel “My health is broken.”

“I worked for 60 years to build a reputation and I was very proud of it,” he said, his head bowed before the bench. “But all of that has been destroyed because of the events of this case, for which I accept full responsibility.”

As many as 364 supporters — including an Indonesian orphan Cellini befriended and helped put through law school, a young man suffering from cerebral palsy, former Gov. Jim Edgar and what Zagel described as “three prominent journalists” — wrote to Zagel on Cellini’s behalf, also asking for mercy for the old man.

Zagel, who also received letters from members of the public who wanted Cellini jailed for 20 years, said the letters of support showed, “There are very few, if any, 100 percent true villains among us.”

The sentence of one year and one day and $75,000 fine he imposed included a small kindness for Cellini — a quirk in sentencing laws means he would have had to serve a full year if sentenced to a day less, instead of the 10 months he will likely now spend behind bars.

But like the jury, which in December convicted Cellini of conspiracy to extort, Zagel said he did not buy Cellini’s argument that he was merely a messenger for serial con man, drug abuser and pension board member Stuart Levine when he called Rosenburg eight years ago to solicit a bribe for Blagojevich.

Secretly recorded on federal wiretaps with other insiders, Cellini hit a snag when Rosenberg balked at the threat his Capri Capital Investment firm would lose business from the state teachers’ pension board if he did not donate to the governor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter said there were “real problems in Illinois” politics that Cellini was an important part of.

And Acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro said Cellini’s conviction and sentence sent a message to the “bipartisan cabal of Illinois — the behind the scenes folks who fuel the corruption, that raise the money.

“Those people pay attention to things like this and they pay attention when somebody who’s almost 78 goes to prison.

“I’d like to think that it’s the end of an era, but I’ve been around here too long,” he said. “I’d like to think that we’re never going to be prosecuting corrupt Illinois politicians again, but I’d be insane to make that prediction.

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