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Insider turned star witness tells of deals made with Cellini

Real EstateCompensation and BenefitsPension and WelfareRetirementMedicine

Stuart Levine, a flawed political insider whose cooperation helped take down the Blagojevich administration, returned to the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on Wednesday to tell of more backroom criminal deals.

Levine is the star witness againstSpringfield power broker William Cellini, on trial on charges of plotting to squeeze a campaign contribution from a Hollywood producer whose investment firm had substantial business with the state of Illinois.

Levine last testified in 2008 against Antoin "Tony" Rezko, a top adviser to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich who was convicted of using his political clout to orchestrate a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme.

On Wednesday, Levine, 65, who once made millions of dollars, strode into the courtroom and explained how the scandal cost him his home and livelihood. He said he now sells electronic cigarettes at a shopping mall.

He also told the jury of his extensive drug abuse — including crystal meth and ketamine binges — that started in the early 1970s and went on for decades.

Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Niewoehner, Levine gave mostly monotone "yes" or "no" answers about malfeasance at the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, or TRS, where he sat on the board of trustees.

At one point on the stand, Levine became flustered when his cellphone rang and he struggled tosilence it. Unable to turn the phone off entirely, Levine finally handed it over to Niewoehner.

Still, Levine's answers were clear on Cellini's deep influence at TRS and how they used that to broker an illegal deal with Rezko and Christopher Kelly, another top Blagojevich adviser.

Levine told the jury that Cellini, a close ally, had come to him with concerns about the leadership at TRS and whether enough money was being invested in real estate. Cellini, a longtime lobbyist and fundraiser, owned Commonwealth Realty Advisors, a real estate investment company that was making millions of dollars from TRS investments .

Protecting that kind of power is central to the charges against Cellini, prosecutors have alleged.

Levine said he and Cellini worked to engineer a series of moves to ensure they continued to control a voting block on TRS. Among the moves was putting a friend of Cellini's on the board, Levine said.

At one point Levine was asked if he was generally willing to do what Cellini wanted when it came to TRS. "Yes," he responded. And when asked how much influence Cellini had at TRS, Levine quickly replied, "Considerable."

Levine also provided a glimpse of how he amassed power. He testified that after he maneuvered to be elected chairman of the TRS rules committee, he allowed Jon Bauman, a top TRS official, to write his own performance reviews and decide his salary and benefits.

When asked why he did this, Levine said, "To make him do as I ask."

Levine's testimony then turned to June 2003, when the Blagojevich administration was contemplating a pension reform plan that would have stripped TRS — and Levine — of decision-making. Levine said he told Cellini this would "endanger" Commonwealth's TRS business.

The two agreed that Cellini would use his relationship with Rezko and Kelly to convince them to block the pension plan, Levine said. In return, Cellini would promise that he and Levine would use their influence at TRS to steer contracts to companies based on political contributions to Blagojevich, Levine said.

Cellini later told Levine that Rezko and Kelly agreed to go to Blagojevich to try and kill the consolidation.

Levine is expected to be on the stand the rest of the week.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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