Prosecutors stepped back in time Thursday at the federal trial of William Cellini to show how they believe the political insider for years cozied up to Illinois governors and wielded influence with key decision-makers in state government.
During the first day of testimony, witnesses described Cellini's sway at the Teachers' Retirement System, or TRS, as well as his fundraising and connections with several governors, a combination central to the extortion plot alleged by prosecutors.
Rod Blagojevich and a corrupt TRS board member to try to squeeze a campaign contribution from a Hollywood producer whose investment firm had substantial TRS business.
Prosecutors contend Cellini, who himself made millions of dollars handling real-estate investments for TRS, agreed to the deal to protect his influence there.
To show the kind of access enjoyed by Cellini, the government called to the stand Marvin L. Traylor Jr. of the Illinois Asphalt Pavement Association, long headed by Cellini.
Traylor said Cellini understood how state government worked, how policy was made and who made it. And he also had access to high-ranking staff in the governor's office.
"He can call them, and they will call back," said Traylor, who went out of his way to compliment Cellini, his boss.
"He's a wise man," Traylor said. "He looks after me when I stub my toes."
Traylor testified that between the mid-1980s and 2002, he attended annual gubernatorial fundraisers in Springfield hosted by Cellini. Traylor said Cellini had professional relationships with three successive Republican governors — Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar andGeorge Ryan.
He also recalled once sharing dinner with Cellini and Edgar. He said he believed the two were friends.
Traylor also testified he accompanied Cellini to a fundraiser in 2002 for Blagojevich, the state's first Democratic governor in more than a quarter-century.
Earlier in the day, Keith Bozarth, a former head of TRS, said he met with Cellini several times in his three years in the post and that Cellini told him of his Republican fundraising efforts.
Bozarth also said that Cellini early on raised concerns that Bozarth might have a "bias" toward real-estate investments, noting his track record in his previous pension post in Missouri.
Bozarth left TRS in 2001 after it was revealed that the general counsel he had brought in didn't have a license to practice law in Illinois. But under questioning by Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Deis, Bozarth suggested he quit for another reason.
"Frankly, when Stuart Levine … (was) appointed to the board it became clear it was not a place I wanted to work," testified Bozarth, now the executive director of the State of Wisconsin Investment Board, which handles state employee retirement assets.
Levine, the corrupt TRS board member who pleaded guilty to wrongdoing, is a key prosecution witness against Cellini.
Under cross-examination by Cellini's attorney, Dan Webb, Bozarth acknowledged that it was not uncommon for him to meet with other heads of investment companies that worked with TRS in addition to Cellini.
Webb has portrayed Cellini as a victim of Levine's plotting and insisted that Cellini had no knowledge of the plot to try to extort a $1.5 million contribution for Blagojevich's campaign to keep his power at TRS.
The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse.