Ill. powerbroker on trial for alleged shakedown

October 5, 2011 - 8:25 PM

CHICAGO (AP) — A millionaire once known as the "king of clout" for his influence in Illinois politics tried to shakedown a Hollywood producer for a $1.5 million campaign donation, prosecutors said Wednesday as they opened the last trial stemming from the decade-long investigation of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Prosecutor Greg Deis told jurors that the case against William Cellini was about extortion and abuse of power. Cellini, 76, denies any wrongdoing but is accused of conspiring to extort a donation for the then-governor from Thomas Rosenberg, the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby."

Deis told jurors that all Cellini's influence in Illinois politics was so strong that all he had to say to Rosenberg was that he hadn't contributed enough money to Blagojevich, who has since been convicted on corruption charges.

"You have not done 'X' so you will not get 'Y,'" Deis said Cellini effectively told Rosenberg. "It was a shakedown, plain and simple."

Prosecutors allege that Cellini and his cohorts planned to threaten Rosenberg's investment company with the loss of managing $220 million in state pension money from the $30 billion Illinois Teachers Retirement System unless he made the donation.

Defense attorney Dan Webb challenging that claim, saying during his opening statements that others hatched the plot and ensnared an unsuspecting Cellini.

"Cellini ended up feeling like ham in a ham sandwich," said Webb, a former U.S. Attorney. "This man is charged with a crime of trying to extort Rosenberg ... it never, ever happened."

Webb also defended Blagojevich's Republican predecessor, former Republican Gov. George Ryan, at his 2006 corruption trial that ended in his conviction. Ryan is now serving a 6½ year prison term.

The enigmatic Cellini earned tens of millions from real estate, casino and even asphalt businesses — in part through his state connections. If convicted of all the charges, included attempted extortion and solicitation of a bribe, he could face years in prison. Cellini is currently free on $1 million bond.

The opening remarks came shortly after U.S. District Judge James Zagel, who also presided over Blagojevich's corruption trial, seated the jury. The judge vetted dozens of would-be jurors over three days, dismissing one who said he believed "lobbyists inject corruption into our political system" and another who wrote on his jury questionnaire that, "Mr. Cellini made himself rich from his state connections."

During questioning, the judge asked potential panelists if they had relatives or close friends who were teachers and who relied on the state's pension system for teachers — as he sought to decide if they might prejudice them against Cellini, himself a former teacher.