After listening to a federal prosecutor for nearly 40 minutes lay out how Springfield power broker William Cellini allegedly plotted to extort campaign cash from a Hollywood producer, veteran attorney Dan Webb stood up and put a decidedly different spin on the story.
Cellini was only trying to help an old friend, Webb insisted Wednesday to the jury. And in the end, he did, Webb maintained.
"This story does have a happy ending," Webb said with emphasis as Cellini's long-awaited trial started in earnest after the selection of 12 jurors and four alternates.
The longtime Statehouse insider is charged with trying to shake down producer Thomas Rosenberg in 2004 for a $1.5 million contribution to the campaign of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Cellini was no innocent victim of circumstances, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Deis contended in his opening remarks to jurors.
"The defendant didn't slip, fall and find himself in the middle of an extortion," he said. "He was in. Eyes wide open."
Cellini's federal trial on fraud and attempted extortion charges marks the last of the corruption cases arising from the scandal that toppled Blagojevich and many of his top aides.
On Wednesday, two rows of supporters, many of whom had traveled from Springfield, sat behind Cellini, 76, who has wielded influence behind the scenes in Springfield for four decades.
Webb told the jury that Cellini never took part in the extortion and he attacked what he called six flaws in the government's evidence, including that there is no evidence Cellini directly asked Rosenberg for money. Webb also said it was Rosenberg who called Cellini for help when his investments at the Teachers' Retirement System, or TRS, were threatened.
Webb also blasted Stuart Levine, the prosecution's key witness, as unreliable. He warned jurors that they would be stunned by Levine's "secret life" of serious drug abuse and "24-hour binge parties."
But the prosecutor noted that secretly recorded phone calls between Levine and Cellini prove that Cellini was deeply involved in the extortion plot.
Deis portrayed Cellini as a consummate insider with access and influence who could simply pick up a phone and reach decision-makers in state government.
In a low and serious tone, Deis explained how Cellini's longtime connections in state politics set the stage for the alleged 2004 plot.
After more than a quarter century of Republican rule in the governor's office, Democrat Blagojevich's election posed difficulties for Cellini, according to the government. But he secretly made a deal with two of the governor's key advisers, Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly, that he would raise campaign money for Blagojevich to keep his influence at TRS, the prosecutor alleged. Levine was a corrupt member of the TRS board.
The government alleges that Cellini had a financial reason for the move — an investment company he controlled made millions of dollars in fees from TRS.
At one point Deis noted Cellini's considerable power by referring to his downstate nickname: "the pope."
Cellini, wearing a bright pink tie, sat calmly with his hands folded neatly on the defense table as the two sides told jurors what they believe the evidence will be as the trial unfolds during the next several weeks.
On a screen in the courtroom in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, Webb flashed a litany of Levine's flaws, called him a con man and then listed five illegal drugs abused by Levine.
Webb told the jury of "24-hour binge parties" in hotels, including the infamous Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood.
"You're gonna be flabbergasted by Stuart Levine's secret life," Webb told jurors.
The sordid details had played out at Rezko's 2008 trial. Levine was a key witness for the government then as well.
Prosecutors alleged that Rosenberg was targeted after Rezko and Kelly found out that he hadn't made a contribution to Blagojevich's campaign even though his investment firm, Capri Capital, was raking in cash through TRS.
Meanwhile, Cellini had his own concerns about TRS. State officials were considering a revamping of all pension boards, a move that could have cut Cellini's control over TRS, prosecutors contended.
Deis said Cellini agreed to go to Rosenberg with a message that if he didn't make a contribution, a pending $220 million allocation for Capri would not go through. In return, Cellini held on to his power at TRS, an agreement to "trade teachers' money in exchange for bribes," Deis said.
But according to prosecutors, Rosenberg angrily balked at Cellini's attempt to squeeze him for money and never made a contribution to Blagojevich.
"It was a shakedown, plain and simple," Deis said.
In the end, prosecutors alleged, Cellini and his co-conspirators backed off and Rosenberg ended up getting the $220 million to invest for TRS.
And it all happened on a state board that had 11 members who were supposed to be making the decisions, Deis told the jury.
"Beneath the surface, other people were calling the shots," Deis said. "And one of those people was the defendant."
Webb, who will conclude his opening statements Thursday, warned the jury to be wary of Levine.
"The issue in this case is going to be Stuart Levine's credibility," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun