William Cellini's influence behind the scenes in Illinois politics and government has grown over four decades as he turned contacts and access into contracts and cash with a reach that left some envious and others awed.
He has arguably been the most powerful insider in Springfield, whom few taxpayers have even heard of outside the capital.
"To some people, a call from Bill was like a call from God," said Tony Leone, a former Republican consultant and lobbyist who worked for years with Cellini on GOP fundraisers, referring to Cellini's legendary influence.
But next week Cellini will be thrust into the one place he has tried to avoid — the spotlight — as the last scheduled corruption trial of a major player arising from the scandal that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and many of his top aides gets under way in Chicago.
Over 26 consecutive years of rule by Republican governors, the prominent GOP fundraiser had amassed significant sway at state government agencies, federal prosecutors said. But with Democrat Blagojevich's election in 2002, Cellini faced the threat of waning influence, they contended.
Cellini "shifted his allegiance, agreeing secretly to raise money for Blagojevich," prosecutors alleged in a court filing this month. As part of that alleged scheme, the man known to some as the "Pope" is charged with conspiring with top Blagojevich aides to squeeze a $1.5 million campaign contribution from a Hollywood producer.
Cellini is scheduled to go on trial on federal fraud, conspiracy and attempted extortion charges in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on Oct. 3. He had originally been scheduled to go on trial with Blagojevich, who was convicted of sweeping corruption charges, but Cellini's lawyers convinced U.S. District Judge James Zagel that he should be tried separately.
His client's success and access aren't in dispute, said one of Cellini's lawyers, Dan Webb, but "it's not a crime to be successful."
In a telephone interview last week, Webb, a former U.S. attorney, called the government's case "extraordinarily weak."
Though he's largely unknown outside Springfield, Cellini, now 76, consolidated his power in the state capital, where he grew up in a working-class neighborhood, the son of a Springfield police officer. He played keyboards in a trio as a kid. After college, he taught physics, algebra, English and speech at a small-town high school.
In his late 20s, he entered politics with his election as Springfield's commissioner of streets and public improvements. By age 35, he became the state's youngest-ever director of the forerunner to the Department of Transportation, emerging as a young star in then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie's cabinet.
In the process, he became a fundraiser extraordinaire, offering his political connections and foot soldiers for his high-ranking political friends.
With patronage in full bloom, Cellini found positions for his political troops in state government. Cellini's allies estimate legions of state workers owe him their jobs.
"What he was able to do over the long length of time was get people in entry positions who eventually became invaluable as they rose up in the ranks," said Leone, who served in a fundraising role with the local Republicans while Cellini acted as official treasurer and unofficial boss. "These people were just looking for a career, and all of a sudden, they were a go-to guy in some agency."
Over the years, Cellini became a wealthy man, winning state contracts, landing a riverboat casino license in Alton and putting together a sweetheart hotel deal that turned into a lemon for taxpayers.
But whether Cellini abused his power will be the focus of the expected three-week trial, which will feature secretly recorded phone calls as well as testimony from convicted co-defendants and the producer, Thomas Rosenberg.
The government alleges that Cellini brokered a deal with Blagojevich's closest advisers, Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly, both of whom were later convicted in the federal probe. If they protected his influence at the Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois, known as TRS, he would help raise campaign cash for the governor, prosecutors contend. At stake was Cellini's alleged control of the TRS board and millions of dollars in fees his real estate asset-management firm reaped by investing pension money for TRS.
Two years into the Blagojevich administration, Cellini had become "tight" with Rezko and Kelly, conferring with them frequently on state matters, prosecutors said. About that time, the two Blagojevich confidants learned that Rosenberg's investment firm, Capri Capital, managed hundreds of millions of dollars of TRS pension funds, yet he hadn't made any contributions to Blagojevich's campaign.
"That's not how Rezko and Kelly wanted things to work in Illinois in 2004," the recent government filing said. "For many who found themselves on the administration's radar, the rule was pay to play."
According to the charges, Cellini agreed to help extract campaign money from Rosenberg, teaming up with his close associate, Stuart Levine, a corrupt TRS board member.
But Cellini had no way of knowing investigators were secretly recording Levine's phone conversations as part of the federal probe. The undercover recordings of Cellini and Levine allegedly scheming will be critical to the government's case. Levine, who later cooperated with prosecutors and pleaded guilty, is expected to testify as well.
In testifying against Rezko at his 2008 trial, Levine admitted decades of drug abuse, estimating he spent $1 million between 2000 and 2004 on drug parties, often with male friends at the garishly painted "Purple Hotel" in Lincolnwood.
In recent days, prosecutors sought to limit the defense from bringing out the lurid details at Cellini's trial.
On the secret recordings, Cellini himself described his political style as low-key, even suggesting that it conflicted with the aggressiveness of the Blagojevich regime.
According to another government filing, Cellini had shared his concerns with Rezko and Kelly about their contrasting styles.
"He told Rezko and Kelly that they were moving too fast and were going to get themselves in trouble," the government filing said. Cellini "said he told Rezko and Kelly that they should take (himself) as an example: He had been doing this for 30 years and had always stayed above the fray."
In a secretly recorded call, Cellini again lamented to Levine how fast Blagojevich and his crew seemed to move and reflected on his own time-tested strategy.
"I know that their mode of operandi is different (than) what ours was," Cellini was quoted as saying in the government filing. "We would not call somebody after they got something or they were gonna get something. … Uh, you know it's like getting credit. Now I suppose there's a fine line there."
Webb insisted that the government won't be able to prove that Cellini ever hit up Rosenberg directly for money. He also said their case suffers for a motive — Cellini would not have financially benefited from the campaign contribution.
Prosecutors contend Cellini never got a chance to demand money from Rosenberg because he immediately cried foul. They also argue that Cellini would have benefited from the alleged scheme — keeping his control over TRS in return for helping the Blagojevich administration raise campaign cash.
"The crime was years in the making, and born of defendant's desire to secure his influence at TRS — influence that defendant built, piece by piece, over a long time," the government said in its most recent filing last week.
It's this long and deep reach that has left many surprised that Cellini will stand trial at all.
"Bill Cellini has been gathering and using political chits for decades," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "Most people probably thought he was just untouchable."
Others who consider Cellini a friend expressed surprise that someone with that much political acumen would ever step over that line.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who has known Cellini for 30 years, called him a "very smart guy" who worked hard to lobby on behalf of clients.
"He never asked me to do anything that was illegal," the former governor said. "When I told him no, he understood and didn't put any pressure on. I would be surprised if Bill Cellini would do something that was dishonest, and I'd be surprised because he's pretty smart at knowing the law."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun