Longtime power broker faces trial in Blagojevich scandal
William Cellini's influence behind the scenes in Illinois politics and government has grown over four decades as he turned contacts and access into contracts and cash with a reach that left some envious and others awed.

He has arguably been the most powerful insider in Springfield, whom few taxpayers have even heard of outside the capital.

"To some people, a call from Bill was like a call from God," said Tony Leone, a former Republican consultant and lobbyist who worked for years with Cellini on GOP fundraisers, referring to Cellini's legendary influence.

But next week Cellini will be thrust into the one place he has tried to avoid — the spotlight — as the last scheduled corruption trial of a major player arising from the scandal that brought down former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and many of his top aides gets under way in Chicago.

Over 26 consecutive years of rule by Republican governors, the prominent GOP fundraiser had amassed significant sway at state government agencies, federal prosecutors said. But with Democrat Blagojevich's election in 2002, Cellini faced the threat of waning influence, they contended.

Cellini "shifted his allegiance, agreeing secretly to raise money for Blagojevich," prosecutors alleged in a court filing this month. As part of that alleged scheme, the man known to some as the "Pope" is charged with conspiring with top Blagojevich aides to squeeze a $1.5 million campaign contribution from a Hollywood producer.

Cellini is scheduled to go on trial on federal fraud, conspiracy and attempted extortion charges in the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse on Oct. 3. He had originally been scheduled to go on trial with Blagojevich, who was convicted of sweeping corruption charges, but Cellini's lawyers convinced U.S. District Judge James Zagel that he should be tried separately.

His client's success and access aren't in dispute, said one of Cellini's lawyers, Dan Webb, but "it's not a crime to be successful."

In a telephone interview last week, Webb, a former U.S. attorney, called the government's case "extraordinarily weak."

Though he's largely unknown outside Springfield, Cellini, now 76, consolidated his power in the state capital, where he grew up in a working-class neighborhood, the son of a Springfield police officer. He played keyboards in a trio as a kid. After college, he taught physics, algebra, English and speech at a small-town high school.

In his late 20s, he entered politics with his election as Springfield's commissioner of streets and public improvements. By age 35, he became the state's youngest-ever director of the forerunner to the Department of Transportation, emerging as a young star in then-Gov. Richard Ogilvie's cabinet.

In the process, he became a fundraiser extraordinaire, offering his political connections and foot soldiers for his high-ranking political friends.

With patronage in full bloom, Cellini found positions for his political troops in state government.  Cellini's allies estimate legions of state workers owe him their jobs.

"What he was able to do over the long length of time was get people in entry positions who eventually became invaluable as they rose up in the ranks," said Leone, who served in a fundraising role with the local Republicans while Cellini acted as official treasurer and unofficial boss. "These people were just looking for a career, and all of a sudden, they were a go-to guy in some agency."

Over the years, Cellini became a wealthy man, winning state contracts, landing a riverboat casino license in Alton and putting together a sweetheart hotel deal that turned into a lemon for taxpayers.

But whether Cellini abused his power will be the focus of the expected three-week trial, which will feature secretly recorded phone calls as well as testimony from convicted co-defendants and the producer, Thomas Rosenberg.

The government alleges that Cellini brokered a deal with Blagojevich's closest advisers, Antoin "Tony" Rezko and Christopher Kelly, both of whom were later convicted in the federal probe. If they protected his influence at the Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois, known as TRS, he would help raise campaign cash for the governor, prosecutors contend. At stake was Cellini's alleged control of the TRS board and millions of dollars in fees his real estate asset-management firm reaped by investing pension money for TRS.

Two years into the Blagojevich administration, Cellini had become "tight" with Rezko and Kelly, conferring with them frequently on state matters, prosecutors said. About that time, the two Blagojevich confidants learned that Rosenberg's investment firm, Capri Capital, managed hundreds of millions of dollars of TRS pension funds, yet he hadn't made any contributions to Blagojevich's campaign.

"That's not how Rezko and Kelly wanted things to work in Illinois in 2004," the recent government filing said. "For many who found themselves on the administration's radar, the rule was pay to play."