The specter of Rod Blagojevich hung over the corruption trial of a longtime Illinois powerbroker Thursday as defense attorneys tried to distant their client from the impeached governor and prosecutors sought to link him as closely as possible to the disgraced Democrat.
William Cellini, once known as The King of Clout for the vast influence he wielded in Illinois politics for nearly four decades, is accused of conspiring to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby," Thomas Rosenberg, for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to Blagojevich, a Chicago Democrat.
But lead defense attorney Dan Webb told jurors Thursday that the 76-year-old Republican from Springfield had no direct dealings with Blagojevich — never talking on the phone or holding meetings with him.
"Cellini never personally knew Blagojevich," he said as he finished his opening statement Thursday morning.
Later, the prosecution attempted to show Cellini's connections were not directly to Blagojevich himself, but to the then-governor's closest confidants, calling one witness on the first day of testimony Thursday to make just that point.
Prosecutors say Cellini plotted with Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, and others to squeeze Rosenberg for a contribution by threating his investment company with the loss of $220 million in funds from the state's Teachers Retirement System.
Cellini, whose trial is the last in a series of trials that grew out of a decade-long investigation of Blagojevich, looked on calmly from the defense table. He appeared to tire during sometime tedious testimony regarding the inner workings of the $30 billion state pension fund.
The 12 jurors and four alternates — a Sears store manager, a longtime employee for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a retired AT&T employer among them — also seemed fatigued and sometimes confused by the testimony as the day wore on.
For his own part, presiding Judge James Zagel made it clear during the questioning of would-be jurors earlier in the week that Blagojevich was not directly relevant to the shakedown case against Cellini.
"Blagojevich is not on trial here," he said at one point. Zagel added that jurors should set aside any negativity they might harbor toward the twice-elected governor as they assess the evidence against Cellini.
Blagojevich, 54, was convicted at his retrial earlier this year on multiple corruption counts, including allegations that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. His early October sentencing date was delayed until after Cellini's trial is over.
A former executive director of the Teachers Retirement System, Keith Bozarth, and another witness later in the day — one-time pension system attorney Steven Loren — both offered overviews of how it operated.
A third government witness, Marvin Traylor Jr., who works for the Illinois Asphalt Paving Association, also testified. Cellini has been executive director of the Springfield-based association that helps advocate on behalf of highway contractors since 1973.
A clearly reluctant government witness, Traylor went out of his way to praise Cellini. "He's a good, wise man," Traylor said.
But under questioning by the prosecution, Traylor also helped the government explain to jurors Cellini's depth of knowledge about the levers of state government, and he described the attention Cellini paid to political fundraising.
To drive home their point while Traylor was on the stand, prosecutors showed an email from Cellini, in which he wrote about someone's fundraising: "That REALLY gives us the clout -- — and there isn't a number you can put on that."
Before his opening statement Thursday morning, Webb complained to Zagel about a Cellini nickname prosecutor's mentioned in their opening remarks to jurors: "the pope" of Illinois politics. The moniker was inappropriate, Webb said, and all part of a push by prosecutors to suggest to the jury that Cellini became rich primarily from his state connections not as a result of his business savvy.
Cellini, who is free on a $1 million bond, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which include attempted extortion.