UPDATED 10/07/11 8:35 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — In an opening statement for the defense, an attorney for Illinois powerbroker William Cellini tried to distance his client from deposed Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The Cellini trial is the last directly linked to the federal investigation of Blagojevich, and ironically, is delaying the sentencing date for the former governor.
Cellini, once known as The King of Clout for the vast influence he wielded in Illinois politics for decades, had no direct dealings with the impeached ex-governor — never talking on the phone or holding meetings with him, attorney Dan Webb told jurors.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports
“Cellini never personally knew Blagojevich,” he said.
Before resuming his opening statement Thursday morning, Webb bitterly complained to presiding Judge James Zagel about a Cellini nickname prosecutor’s mentioned in their opening remarks to jurors: the pope of Illinois politics.
The moniker was inappropriate, Webb said, and all part of a push by prosecutors to suggest to the jury that Cellini became rich primarily from his state connections and not because of his business savvy.
“This is a huge issue,” Webb boomed, referring to the judge’s pretrial ruling that the defense can’t try to argue that business skill accounted for Cellini’s wealth. “For me to be handicapped … is unfair and wrong.”
Zagel rejected Webb’s request to broach the topic once jurors came into the courtroom, saying whether Cellini was or wasn’t good at business was irrelevant to the shakedown allegation.
Upon resuming his opening statement, Webb argued that Cellini was only trying to help his friend, Tom Rosenberg, although Rosenberg was being extorted by someone else, Stuart Levine, who is the main government witness against Cellini.
Webb argued to counteract Cellini’s reputation as a Springfield powerbroker, the defense should be able to show Cellini’s business competence.
But U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel said Cellini’s business competence is not on trial.
“I don’t want to see a strawman demolished when the strawman is not an issue,” Zagel said.
Webb started to counter, but Zagel said: “No. I’m done. I’ve ruled.”
After Webb concluded his opening, prosecutors called their first witness: a former executive director of the $30 billion Illinois Teachers Retirement System, Keith Bozarth.
Prosecutors say Cellini conspired with Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, and former state-board member Stuart Levine to squeeze move executive Thomas Rosenberg for a contribution by threating his investment company with the loss of $220 million in state pension money from the pension system unless he made the donation.
Bozarth, who has not been accused of wrongdoing, offered an overview of how the pension system operated and recounted how Cellini came to meet him around early 1999 to complain. Cellini complained that Bozarth seemed to have a bias against investing in real estate, in which Cellini had an interest.
A second witness, Marvin Traylor Jr., who works for the Illinois Asphalt Paving Association, also testified. Cellini has been executive director of the Springfield-based association that helps advocate on behalf of highway contractors since 1973.
Traylor described Cellini’s depth of knowledge in the workings of the state and his frequent political fundraising.
The trial resumes Tuesday.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)