Springfield power broker William Cellini and Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, a Chicago real estate mogul who made it big in Hollywood, often crossed paths and shared much in common over the years, including deep political ties and a powerful reach that earned them both lucrative state business deals.
The two were on opposite sides of a federal courtroom in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon as Rosenberg took the stand at Cellini's trial on charges that he joined a plot to extort a $1.5 million contribution from Rosenberg to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign.
Rosenberg talked about his background and his relationships with some of the central figures in the alleged caper, making clear his feelings about Stuart Levine, another longtime political insider, as well as Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly, two top Blagojevich advisers.
Levine, a key government witness, was a serial scammer who kept coming after Rosenberg for payoffs, so much so that Rosenberg came to feel that Levine was "trying to compromise me," he said. As for Rezko and Kelly, Rosenberg said he felt nothing but "complete animosity and disdain."
Cellini, however, was a longtime "close business friend," Rosenberg said. Both were major political fundraisers — Rosenberg for Democrats and Cellini for Republicans. Each ran asset management companies that did lucrative business with the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System, or TRS.
The government alleges that Cellini agreed to deliver a message to Rosenberg that he needed to make a campaign contribution to Blagojevich or Rosenberg's pending $220 million investment deal through TRS would not go through.
Rezko and Kelly, the government contends, were upset that Rosenberg had done millions of dollars in state business but had never made a contribution to Blagojevich.
During his four decades behind the scenes in Illinois politics, Cellini had amassed considerable power at TRS — not to mention millions of dollars while managing pension investments. Prosecutors allege that Cellini agreed to deliver the extortion message to Rosenberg as a way to protect his access and influence at TRS, a board controlled by Blagojevich.
Cellini's attorneys have maintained that their client knew nothing about the plot, suggesting instead that he was dragged into the plot by Levine, who has a long, troubled history of drug use, not to mention bribery and kickbacks. Levine was a corrupt member of the TRS board.
Without the jury present in the courtroom, Rosenberg answered several questions about a series of phone calls in which he discussed his pending TRS deal with Cellini as well as his strained relations with Rezko and Kelly, in part because his TRS business had already been held up.
In the earliest phone call, Rosenberg said, the extent of any plot to extort funds from him was not immediately clear.
Then after several more calls, Rosenberg said, he came to understand that Rezko and Kelly had sent Cellini to "convey a message."
"I never thought Bill was trying to get money from me," Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg is slated to return to the stand Thursday in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse and go into more detail — this time in front of the jury — about the attempted extortion.
In testimony Wednesday, Rosenberg, 64, said he was born in Chicago and now lives in California. Rosenberg, a friend of former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's, said he has raised political funds for local and national Democratic candidates for years.
He started Capri Capital, a company that did business with TRS, in 1990. Five years later, he launched his movie production company, Lakeshore Entertainment, which produced "Million Dollar Baby."