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CHICAGO (AP) – The producer of “Million Dollar Baby” cursed at a clout-heavy businessman about what he believed was a scheme to extort him for a campaign donation, screaming over the phone that he’d never relinquish a dime to then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Hollywood executive testified Thursday.
Thomas Rosenberg, at times indignant and others jocular, addressed jurors for two hours before prosecutors rested their two-week case against long-time Illinois powerbroker William Cellini. It’s the last in a series of trials stemming from the federal investigation of the impeached governor.
Once called the King of Clout for his behind-the-scenes political influence, the 76-year-old Cellini is accused of conspiring to extort the Oscar-winning producer for a $1.5 million contribution to Blagojevich’s campaign in May 2004.
“I told Bill I would not be shaken down,” the tanned Rosenberg recalled about the phone conversation, reclining in his witness chair and sipping water from a Styrofoam cup between questions. “I would not give a dime to Blagojevich under any circumstances.”
Cellini denies plotting with former state board member Stuart Levine and two Blagojevich confidants, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, to squeeze Rosenberg — a longtime personal friend — by threatening to withhold $220 million in state pension funds from Rosenberg’s investment firm, Capri Capital.
The defense is set to call its first witnesses Friday. The usually at-ease Cellini has looked more anxious as the trial nears a conclusion, and jurors could start deliberating next week.
Cellini’s role, according to prosecutors, was to first gently break it to Rosenberg that the Blagojevich insiders had discovered he hadn’t contributed to the governor and that they intended to ask him for a donation in exchange for the pension money. In a second step, Levine was supposed to tighten the screws by asking Rosenberg for a specific amount of money and by making the threat explicit.
Prosecutors allege that several early May 2004 phone conversations between Cellini and Rosenberg amounted to the smoking guns that prove Cellini was in on the conspiracy.
On the stand Thursday, Rosenberg said he and Cellini had been friends for more than 20 years, so his suspicions didn’t fall on him initially. Instead, he figured Rezko and Kelly — increasingly viewed as members of Blagojevich’s tight inner circle — were actually the ones behind the squeeze.
Rosenberg told jurors that he intentionally worked himself into such tizzy during the phone conversation not so much to blast his friend but to ensure that Cellini would convey his anger to the two Blagojevich confidants.
“I wanted him to pass on the full level of my fury,” Rosenberg told jurors.
Rosenberg, 64, also asked Cellini to present an ultimatum to Rezko and Kelly, that “they had 48 hours to straighten this out” or Rosenberg would go to authorities.
Rosenberg, whose credits include about 60 movies, also advised Cellini to distance himself from Rezko and Kelly. It was known they were up to no good, Rosenberg told him, and it was likely that federal investigators would eventually zero in on them.
“These guys were so crazy, so wild, so brazen — it was only a matter of time,” Rosenberg testified.
Rezko was convicted of multiple corruption counts in 2008 and is in jail awaiting sentencing. Kelly committed suicide in 2009.
Earlier this year, jurors convicted Blagojevich on 17 of 20 corruption counts, including attempted extortion for seeking to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. He is free on bond as he waits to be sentenced.
From Cellini’s tone on the phone during the 2004 call, Rosenberg said he could tell he was nervous about how Rosenberg had exploded in anger. Prosecutors said Cellini and his cohorts were, in fact, shocked by the producer’s threat to blow the whistle and they frantically backpedaled.
Within weeks, the $30 billion Teachers’ Retirement System — through which the plotters allegedly controlled how much pension money investment companies received — allotted Rosenberg the $220 million even though he never made the contribution.
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