Weather Updates

Prosecutors call Cellini ‘extorter,’ defense dubs star witness ‘a whack job’

FILE - In this Oct. 3 2011 file phoIllinois powerbroker William Cellini 76 arrives federal court for jury selectihis corruptitrial

FILE - In this Oct. 3, 2011 file photo, Illinois powerbroker William Cellini, 76, arrives in federal court for jury selection in his corruption trial in Chicago. Prosecutors are scheduled to begin closing arguments Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. It is the last trial related to the years of federal scrutiny of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

storyidforme: 20259994
tmspicid: 7557828
fileheaderid: 3437695

Updated: January 23, 2012 4:02AM

William Cellini, long dubbed “the King of Clout” because of the vast influence he wielded over state government, knew exactly what he was doing when he allegedly put the screws to a Hollywood producer to cough up a campaign contribution for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, prosecutors contended Tuesday.

“The defendant was not an accidental extortionist,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner told a federal jury during closing arguments in Cellini’s extortion trial. “He knew exactly what he was doing because he’s been in Illinois politics for 30 years … He knew it because he knew that in Illinois clout was king.”

Niewoehner was rebutting a central contention from Cellini’s defense: that the Springfield millionaire was an unwitting participant in an extortion scheme hatched by businessman Stuart Levine, whom the defense dismissed as a “whack job.”

For about three hours, Cellini’s attorney, Dan Webb, told jurors there was no proof that Cellini passed on an extortion message to Tom Rosenberg.

Webb instead vilified the top prosecution witness Levine, saying he alone created reasonable doubt in the government’s case, having lied even to the government while he was cooperating. Webb questioned Levine’s memory and said he spent the better part of his adult life crafting crimes, ripping off people and binging on drugs.

“This man, every time he’s been trusted to do anything, he’s lied, cheated and stolen throughout his life,” Webb said. “That’s the man the government says to trust.”

Prosecutors charge that Cellini, 76, was part of a conspiracy in 2004, agreeing with Levine and fund-raisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly to force producer and longtime Chicago businessman Rosenberg to pay a bribe in the form of a campaign contribution to Blagojevich in exchange for continued state business for his investment firm, Capri Capital. Rosenberg balked and prosecutors say Cellini then panicked and went into “cover-up mode.”

Jurors are to be instructed on the law on Wednesday and then will have the case.

In the day-long verbal battle inside the courtroom Tuesday, both sides pointed to tapes played at trial. Prosecutors held them up for what they contained; the defense for what they lacked.

“Tapes give you everything you need in this case. They don’t forget. They don’t take drugs. They don’t have a deal with the government,” Niewoehner said, referencing Levine, the government’s troubled top witness.

Earlier in the day, Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter played a clip of a tape in which Cellini and Levine are heard saying it’s up to Rosenberg if he’d rather walk away from the money than deal with Rezko. They both are then heard laughing.

“The defendant is laughing,” Porter told jurors, as she raised her voice. “That is what corruption sounds like.”

With his family seated behind him, Cellini wore a pink shirt and dark pink, polka-dotted tie, and sometimes chewed on the stem of his eyeglasses as he listened to prosecutors describe him as “Cellini the extorter,” words that appeared on a large, overhead screen.

The federal courtroom in downtown Chicago was packed — some onlookers even sat on the floor and in the center aisle — with many observers having driven up from Springfield.

Prosecutors pointed to a secretly recorded phone call in which Cellini told Rosenberg that Rezko and Kelly were surprised that Capri Capital had won millions of dollars in business with the TRS, that Capri’s newest allotment of state business was on hold and that Rosenberg — the Oscar-wining producer of the movie “Million Dollar Baby” — would have to give Blagojevich a campaign contribution before that hold would be lifted.

Cellini was never part of the conspiracy, Webb said, and told jurors they would never hear Cellini making a demand of Rosenberg. Cellini was simply responding to Rosenberg’s inquiry on why TRS had put a hold on the $220 million Capri Capital was slotted to receive, Webb said.

“Cellini does not pass on an extortion message,” Webb said. “Cellini is telling Rosenberg the status — whether Rosenberg likes it or not.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.