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Stage set for William Cellini trial

William Cellini | 2008 photo

William Cellini | 2008 photo

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The King of Clout: State deals make William Cellini rich
William Cellini's business dealings cross party lines
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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:44AM

William Cellini amassed a fortune by keeping himself close to the state’s political stage while taking care to stand behind the curtain.

His influence with Illinois governors began with Richard Ogilvie and stretched to convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

For decades, it paid off handsomely.

From landing Illinois’ first casino boat license, to road construction, to a failed hotel venture, to real estate, Cellini, long a Republican political fund-raiser, cut deal after deal tied to state business.

As executive director of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, as well as his involvement in the patronage-rich Sangamon County Republican organization, Cellini spent years doling out favors, then spent years collecting on them, said longtime Springfield political analyst Kent Redfield.

When a Democrat took over the governor’s job for the first time in 26 years, Cellini adapted, helping raise money for Blagojevich.

That’s when Cellini’s decades of power wielding hit a snag.

In 2009, the man often referred to as the Downstate powerbroker, was indicted in an alleged scheme to extort another businessman. Cellini was caught on tape with Stuart Levine, an admitted crook who once served on two state boards. The feds say the two were conspiring with others to extort a firm trying to get a piece of the state’s pension investments.

“He’s the quintessential insider. The fact that he’s been behind the scenes and so successful at aggregating power and accessing power, it was really a shock to people that he ended up getting indicted,” said Redfield. “He had an incredible reputation for staying on the right side of the line.”

Cellini is accused of delivering a message to investment manager and Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg of Capri Capital that advisers of Blagojevich expected him to pump cash into the then-governor’s campaign fund if he wanted his firm to win $220 million in state business.

When Rosenberg angrily balked at the suggestion, Cellini is accused of working to cover up the scheme, prosecutors charge.

Cellini, 76, has pleaded not guilty. Jury selection in his trial begins Monday.

His attorney, Dan Webb, has said the prosecution’s case is weak and rests on the allegation that Cellini worked to extort Rosenberg.

“Rosenberg has admitted under oath in the [Tony] Rezko trial that Cellini never asked him to make a campaign contribution, never once,” Webb has said. Webb also repeatedly notes that Rezko, convicted of corruption in 2008, was acquitted on the charge involving the Rosenberg conspiracy.

Here is a roadmap to the case against him:

The charge

Referred to as “the pope” because of his influence over a major pension fund in Illinois, Cellini is accused of conspiring with school pension fund board member Stuart Levine and Blagojevich advisers Tony Rezko and Christopher Kelly to extort Thomas Rosenberg. Cellini allegedly passed on a message to Rosenberg that Kelly and Rezko were upset he didn’t ante up to Blagojevich’s campaign fund at the time he sought a $220 million deal with the state. Prosecutors have recordings of Cellini and Levine, but his lawyers insist they show no wrongdoing.

The players

William Cellini: The ultimate backroom dealer who made millions of dollars off state-related deals. Cellini landed the state’s first casino boat license. He founded Argosy Gaming Co., a casino firm, and later made a fortune after a Pennsylvania company bought it out. But it’s his investment group, Commonwealth Realty Advisers, and his behind-the-scenes influence with the state’s pension fund system that’s at the center of his corruption trial.

Teachers’ Retirement System: Its board votes on millions of dollars of state investments. The feds say that Cellini controlled the appointment of board members and TRS staff to protect Cellini’s interests.

Commonwealth Realty Advisers: Cellini founded the firm in 1989 and it became a major real estate investment manager for TRS, managing hundreds of millions of dollars in pension money for the system. TRS stopped doing business with Commonwealth after Cellini’s indictment.

Stuart Levine: The main witness against Cellini whose credibility is expected to take a beating because of Levine’s history of drug use and wild partying — not to mention his own criminal misdeeds. Levine was a TRS board member and onetime top Republican fund-raiser who, like Cellini, supported Blagojevich once he took the governor’s job. Levine has pleaded guilty, admitting to using his position on two Illinois state boards to mastermind multimillion-dollar extortion schemes designed to enrich himself, Tony Rezko and others.

Tony Rezko: Convicted in 2008 of conspiring with Levine and using his influence with Blagojevich to illegally profit off state deals. Cellini’s lawyers point out that Rezko was acquitted of the charge involving Cellini. Tapes played in Rezko’s trial concerning the charge involved Cellini and Levine — and not Rezko.

Thomas Rosenberg: Hollywood producer, including of the movie “Million Dollar Baby,” who also headed Capri Capital, which sought TRS pension fund business. Rosenberg is a central figure in Cellini’s case. Prosecutors argue he was the victim of an extortion conspiracy involving Cellini, Rezko, Chris Kelly and Levine. Rosenberg testified in Rezko’s 2008 trial that his $220 million deal with the state was initially stalled after he refused to ante up to Blagojevich’s campaign fund. “They made the consequences clear,” Rosenberg testified.

Christopher Kelly: The late adviser and fund-raiser for Blagojevich and Rezko purportedly worked to shake down political donors for campaign contributions in exchange for board appointments and state business.

Rod Blagojevich: Was governor at the time of the alleged conspiracy. Cellini, a longtime Republican backer, switched parties and began raising money for Blagojevich, including hosting a $400,000 fund-raiser .

Keith Bozarth: A onetime TRS executive director, who in 1999 moved to pull back on real estate investments. Prosecutors say Cellini felt a threat to Commonwealth, so he worked with Levine to target Bozarth to leave and replace him with someone they could better control.

Jon Bauman: The TRS executive director in 2001, whom Cellini, Levine and Levine’s faction on the TRS board found to be “friendly” to their interests, according to prosecutors. At one private meeting that included Levine, Bauman and Cellini, a $50 million TRS allocation was proposed for Commonwealth. Cellini said it wasn’t enough and wanted the amount doubled, according to testimony in Rezko’s trial. Bauman later recommended that to the board, which approved the higher figure, prosecutors allege in court papers.

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