The last scheduled trial arising from the pay-to-play scandal that toppled former Gov. Rod Blagojevich begins today in Chicago's federal courthouse, this time with a longtime Springfield power broker on the hot seat.
William Cellini is charged with plotting to extort a Hollywood producer to make a campaign contribution to Blagojevich's campaign.
GOP fundraiser, amassed significant influence at state government agencies, particularly the Teachers' Retirement System, known as TRS, according to federal prosecutors.
To keep that influence when Democrat Blagojevich took office in 2003, Cellini, known as "The Pope" in Springfield circles, secretly agreed to raise campaign money for the governor, prosecutors allege.
TRS was a cash cow because of the multimillion-dollar investments it handled, and Cellini's real estate asset-management firm earned millions in fees from TRS investments over the years.
Prosecutors allege a plot was hatched among Cellini, corrupt TRS board member Stuart Levine and Blagojevich advisers Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly after discovering that Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg hadn't contributed to Blagojevich's campaign despite his investment firm's extensive business with TRS.
The plan was to try to squeeze a $1.5 million campaign contribution from Rosenberg, who is from Chicago. But when Cellini made the approach, Rosenberg became angry and threatened to go to authorities.
As Cellini allegedly schemed with Levine, the two didn't realize that federal investigators had wiretapped Levine's calls and were listening in. The recordings will be key to the prosecution case.
The Rosenberg plot was aired at Rezko's trial in 2008. Rezko was convicted, but not in connection with the alleged Rosenberg extortion — a fact that Cellini's attorneys have seized on as a hopeful sign of the weakness of the government's case.
Attorneys for Cellini, 76, who has denied all the charges, also contend there is no evidence that Cellini directly hit up Rosenberg for the cash.
Levine's testimony at Rezko's trial was riveting as he admitted to decades of drug abuse and estimated that he spent $1 million between 2000 and 2004 on drug parties at the infamous Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood.
But the lurid stories of the goings-on at the Purple Hotel might remain untold in the Cellini trial. The government has asked U.S. District Judge James Zagel to limit the defense from bringing out all the details.
Potential jurors were scheduled to start filling out questionnaires Friday, and formal selection of a jury is to start Monday. Opening statements could begin late Tuesday or on Wednesday.
Last Blagojevich-linked trial set to begin today
Cellini charged with extorting contribution for Blagojevich from Hollywood producer
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