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William Cellini: Extortionist or Devoted Friend?

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William Cellini: Extortionist or Devoted Friend?
Jack Higgins
William Cellini: Extortionist or Devoted Friend?

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The trial of a man accused of extortion and using his political clout to influence government officials finally got underway Wednesday after more than two days of jury selection.

William Cellini sat calmly as government prosecutors painted him as an extortionist who used state employees as his puppets. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Deis told jurors that Cellini worked "beneath the surface" to control how state money was doled out.

The 77-year-old, longtime Springfield power broker was known to many in the downstate political circle as "the pope" for his influence in state politics.

Cellini made his millions from state license casino gambling, in real estate deals with state and City Hall connections, and according to the feds, by controlling the appointments of Teachers’ Retirement System board members to protect his own interests.

He's accused of conspiring to extort Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, allegedly telling him he had to cough up campaign cash for then-Gov. Blagojevich if his firm wanted to win $220 million in state work from the Teachers' Retirement System.

When Rosenberg refused, prosecutors said Cellini tried to cover up the scheme by urging TRS to "punish" Rosenberg by giving his firm, Capri Capital, just $25 million instead of $220 million.

But Cellini’s high-powered attorney, Dan Webb, said the prosecution's case is a weak one, noting that Blagojevich advisor Tony Rezko, who is awaiting sentencing on his own 2008 corruption charges, was acquitted on the charge involving Rosenberg.

Webb also chipped away at the government's star witness -- businessman Stuart Levine -- telling the jury they'd be "flabbergasted" by the man’s double life as a TRS board member who also took part in night long drug binges at the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood.

Webb said Levine used Cellini to deliver a message to Rosenberg, with whom Levine had been feuding, and wasn't aware of an extortion plot allegedly hatched by Levine and Blagojevich advisors Rezko and Christopher Kelly.

Eventually, Webb said, it was Rosenberg who came to Cellini looking for help getting TRS business.

"This story has a happy ending," Webb told jurors. Rosenberg got his $220 million without making a donation to Blagojevich.

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