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Cellini sentence another step forward for honest government

10/2/96 Copy.  William Cellini delegate from Springfield Illinois gives one several speeches seconding nominatifor Gerald Ford for President Republician

10/2/96 Copy. William Cellini, delegate from Springfield, Illinois, gives one of several speeches seconding the nomination for Gerald Ford for President at the Republician National Convention Wednesday night. Photo by Perry Riddle.

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:37AM

There were two almost mythical figures in Illinois politics when I started working for this newspaper 30 years ago: Eddie Vrdolyak in Chicago and Bill Cellini in Springfield.

They were different in many ways — “Fast Eddie,” the charismatic Chicago alderman who attained star status as the bad-boy chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, and “Mr. C,” the mild-mannered businessman and Sangamon County Republican boss who shunned the spotlight.

But Vrdolyak and Cellini were different sides of the same coin, the coin of the realm around here, whether you call it clout, influence or power. And both used that coin to do deals — business deals and political deals, the one carrying over to the other and making each wealthy.

What really made them legends, though, wasn’t just the money but the perception that they were too smart, too slippery and too powerful for the federal prosecutors who were constantly nipping at their heels in an effort to sort out those deals. The belief was that Vrdolyak and Cellini would always stay one step ahead of the law and never be held to account. A generation of lesser, light dealmakers aspired to follow in their footsteps.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Zagel sentenced the 77-year-old Cellini to a year and a day in prison for his role in a shakedown involving the state teachers pension fund.

Cellini’s fall comes nearly one year after the then 73-year-old Vrdolyak’s release from a federal prison upon completing a 10-month sentence for his part in a kickback scheme.

It’s been a long time coming.

While I’ve said it before, it bears repeating. These two prosecutions were amazing steps forward for honest government in Illinois — as big or bigger than the downfall of our former governors.

That’s because these two cases more than any other dispel the idea — especially among the insiders — that there are those above the law in this state and this city, although there are certainly many who remain thus far beyond the law’s reach.

This is exactly what former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald had in mind when he brought Patrick Fitzgerald (no relation) here to serve as U.S. attorney. In fact, he had Cellini specifically in mind. And whether you credit now former U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald or his team or the federal agents who worked the cases (all of the above makes the most sense), they deserve continued recognition for going where none had been able to go before.

I would not characterize Cellini as a beaten man as he sat at the defense table Thursday, his head down while listening to the lawyers debate his fate — prosecutors asking for “significant” prison time and defense attorney Dan Webb pleading for probation. I think Cellini is more resilient than that.

But he’s definitely been beaten down by the ordeal of the investigation and trial, which, coupled with his poor health, have left him looking frail and weak.

There will be those who will argue Zagel went too soft on Cellini. The sentence seems fair to me. This has been a devastating fall for a proud man.

We in the media would love to punish Cellini for all those insider deals that made him rich: the state office leases, the subsidized housing projects, the riverboat casino license, the road-building contracts and so many others that have never been exposed to the light of day.

The fact is he never got caught doing anything wrong in relation to all of that. It wasn’t until he slipped up during secretly wiretapped conversations with fellow corrupt businessman Stuart Levine, the same guy who took down Vrdolyak, that Cellini was finally caught.

What we heard on those tapes, though, was enough to convince Zagel that Cellini’s behavior was no abberration.

“He has experience in this field,” Zagel said.

“Jail, I am sure, is not a place this defendant ever envisioned himself going,” assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter had observed earlier.

Maybe not 10 years ago, maybe not even five years ago when the noose first started to tighten on him after federal investigators went public with the fact they had secretly wiretapped his conversations with Stuart Levine. But I’ll bet it’s crossed his mind more than once in the time since.

Cellini acknowledged as much by telling the judge: “These last five years have been the most difficult and trying of my life.”

Cellini will continue to fight to stay out of prison. It goes with the territory. But he sees it there in front of him now, as do all those who wanted to be like him.

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