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Star Witness in Cellini Trial Does Prosecutors No Favors

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Cellini Trial Witness: Drugs May Have Hurt Memory
Jack Higgins

The government's star witness in the trial of a man accused of extortion dealt his side a blow Monday when he conceded he sometimes has difficulty remembering things and chalked that up to his possible decades of drug use.

Stuart Levine, who claims he was a partner in the extortion plot, said he regularly arranged marathon drug parties for a close-knit group of friends, often at the Chicago-area Purple Hotel. He also sometimes flew the group by private jet, at his expense, to drug binges in other cities.

Levin's testimony could undermine prosecutors' bid to prove that William Cellini -- once dubbed the King of Clout when it came to Illinois politics -- conspired to squeeze the Oscar-winning producer
of "Million Dollar Baby" for a $1.5 million campaign donation to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Levine, on whom much of the government's case hinges, at one point struggled to remember when he served on the board of Illinois's Teachers' Retirement System. Prosecutors say the extortion plan called for Cellini to gently broach with producer Thomas Rosenberg the idea of making a donation.

Levine, a board member of the $30 billion system that oversaw the pensions, was supposed to tighten the screws in a later call, where he would tell Rosenberg to make a $1.5 million donation or his investment company would lose $220 million in state pension funds.

Cellini, 76, who is free on $1 million bond, has denied plotting with Levine and others to extort Rosenberg.

"Did you think that your drug use has affected you memory?'' defense attorney Dan Webb asked Levine during his second day of cross-examination.

"It's possible," Levine responded quietly.

"These were important boards, and you can't remember the years you were on these boards?" Webb pressed him again.

"No," he answered in a hush.

Levine said he would sometimes snort 10 ``lines'' of a powdered mix of crystal methamphetamine and ketamine around the time he was involved in the extortion plot with Cellini and two Blagojevich insiders, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly.

Levine, who was once worth $70 million and now works as a salesman in a mall, seemed less flustered on the stand Monday. But he occasionally appeared disoriented, sitting blank-faced and mouth agape for several seconds.

Webb attacked his credibility, and not only by suggesting drugs may have damaged his brain. The defense attorney, a former U.S. prosecutor, also got Levine to admit repeatedly that he had committed fraud multiple times as Webb walked him through more than a dozen crimes _ most of which he was never charged with.

Among other things, Levine admitted using his position as executor of a close friend's will to cheat his friend's estate, including his deaf daughter, out of $2 million.

"Your friend went out of his way to befriend and help you,'' said Webb, pacing the courtroom, fiddling with a pen in his hand and looking from Levine to the jurors as he spoke. "And after he did, you reward him by stealing from his estate.''

The 65-year-old Levine's importance to both prosecutors and the defense is evident in the days he has been on the stand. He testified for prosecutors over three days. Webb has said he has four days of questions for him.  

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