Cellini sentenced to year and a day in shakedown plot
William Cellini arrives at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago today for sentencing. Cellini was convicted of conspiring to commit extortion and aiding and abetting solicitation of a bribe from Thomas Rosenberg, the Oscar-winning producer of the film "Million-Dollar Baby." (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune / October 4, 2012)
Cellini, 77, a longtime Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, had operated for years in the shadows of Illinois government, cozying up to politicians in both parties to build formidable clout before he was taken down in the scandal-plagued Rod Blagojevich administration.
A federal jury convicted Cellini nearly a year ago for engaging in an age-old conspiracy scheme that demanded campaign cash for access.
Cellini addressed the court, saying he deeply regrets the pain and suffering he caused his family.
Cellini then called it a "devastating" end to his career and life, noting his age.
Cellini personally asked the court for mercy, asking Zagel to consider his age and health and sentence him to probation.
"My health is broken," he said.
Cellini used his power at an Illinois teachers pension board to help put the squeeze on a Hollywood producer who wanted to continue doing business with the state.
Cellini was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion and of aiding and abetting in the solicitation of a bribe but was acquitted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and attempted extortion.
In court documents filed ahead of today’s sentencing, Cellini’s attorneys argued for probation, noting his age and recent serious health ailments. Cellini was admitted twice to a Springfield hospital in June after suffering a heart attack and then leg pains, which were caused by a blood clot.
His attorneys also wrote at length about Cellini’s dedication to his community, family and charity, submitting 364 letters.
“The 364 letters attest to the fact that Mr. Cellini went far beyond making a positive difference in certain individuals’ lives; simply put, through thousands of individual instances over the course of a lifetime of quiet beneficence and charity, Mr. Cellini transformed lives,” his attorneys wrote.
Letters were also submitted from former high-ranking Illinois politicians, including former Gov. Jim Edgar, who wrote that he never felt pressured by Cellini to do anything he deemed “inappropriate.”
The attorneys also downplayed Cellini’s involvement in the conspiracy – something prosecutors seized on in arguing for a stiff sentence that should not stray far from the guidelines.
“Although it is Cellini’s right to continue to deny culpability, his denials underscore his complete lack of remorse for his criminal conduct and establish that he resolutely refuses to accept any responsibility for that conduct,” prosecutors said.
The charges against Cellini centered on the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, the state pension fund for public school teachers outside Chicago. To keep from losing his clout there after Blagojevich became the state’s first Democratic governor in more than a quarter-century, prosecutors alleged, Cellini agreed to pick firms to manage TRS’ hundreds of millions in investments on one key condition: They had contributed to Blagojevich’s campaign.
Prosecutors alleged that two of Blagojevich’s closest advisers, Antoin “Tony” Rezko and Christopher Kelly, targeted movie producer Thomas Rosenberg after learning he had not made contributions to the then-governor’s campaign even though his investment firm had a lucrative deal with TRS.
Cellini, working with corrupt TRS board member Stuart Levine, was to relay the message to Rosenberg that a $220 million allocation from TRS had been bricked until the contribution was made.
Levine was a key witness in the trial but his shady background was at issue as the defense chipped away at his credibility. Prosecutors also brought secretly recorded phone calls between Levine and Cellini to support the allegations that Cellini joined the conspiracy and agreed to deliver the message to Rosenberg.
The plan, however, went awry when Rosenberg blew up at the extortion attempt and threatened to go to the authorities. In the end, he kept his state business.
Cellini was named Illinois’ first transportation secretary by Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie. He was the treasurer of the Sangamon County Republican Party in his native Springfield and raised money for favored candidates and built a thriving real estate development, construction and investment business.
Cellini's son and daughter teared up after news that he would be sent to prison was announced.
But there was little other reaction in the courtroom, which was packed with his supporters.