CHICAGO (AP) — In their final push to take down a well-connected Illinois millionaire, prosecutors focused on one sound Tuesday — a laugh — as they tried to convince jurors he was in on a scheme to extort campaign cash from a Hollywood producer for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
It was part of prosecutors’ closing argument against William Cellini, who denies that he tried to shakedown the Oscar-winning producer of “Million Dollar Baby” for $1.5 million in 2004. Cellini, whose influence among Illinois politicians once earned him the nickname The King of Clout, is the last to go on trial in the federal investigation of the ousted Democratic governor.
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On secret FBI recordings that prosecutors played over courtroom speakers Tuesday, Cellini seems to chuckle as he talks on the phone about the extortion with another man accused in the alleged crime.
“And the defendant is laughing: That is what corruption sounds like,” government attorney Julie Porter told jurors, her voice rising.
Cellini’s lawyers said prosecutors failed to prove their case, in part because their star witness — alleged co-schemer Stuart Levine — was an admitted serial swindler whose memory may have been damaged by decades of hard drug abuse.
“This man has lied, cheated and stole throughout his life,” defense attorney Dan Webb said. “And this is the man the government says you should believe?”
Porter, who occasionally turned to point at Cellini for emphasis, scoffed at defense suggestions that Cellini may have been hoodwinked and sucked unknowingly into a plot hatched by others.
“He was in the thick of it,” she said. “Cellini had his eyes wide open and knew exactly what was going on.”
Cellini, 76, has denied he conspired to force Hollywood executive Thomas Rosenberg into making the huge donation to Blagojevich’s campaign by threatening to withhold $220 million in teachers’ pension funds from Rosenberg’s investment company, Capri Capital.
He could face more than 50 years in prison if convicted on charges that include conspiracy to commit fraud, extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion.
Jurors were expected to begin deliberating Wednesday morning.
Prosecutors said Cellini conspired with Levine, who sat on the board of the $30 billion Teachers’ Retirement System that controlled the pensions, and with two Blagojevich insiders, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly.
Porter conceded that Cellini, a life-long Republican, would not have pocketed any shakedown money. But she said he hoped to ingratiate himself to Rezko and Kelly — two of the closest and most powerful confidants in the new Democratic governor’s administration.
Porter alluded several times to Cellini’s enormous behind-the-scenes influence, and said he was motivated by a desire for “continued access, continued clout, continued status.”
Webb, Cellini’s attorney, turned his guns on Levine — the only government witness out of more than half a dozen to claim direct knowledge of Cellini’s participation in the extortion.
Levine admitted on the witness stand to once stealing a close friend’s estate out of $2 million and detailed his use of cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs — sometimes in binges at marathon parties.
“Levine is a whack job,” Webb told jurors.
During the trial, Rosenberg testified that he angrily told Cellini during a 2004 phone conversation that he “would not give a dime to Blagojevich” and threatened to go to authorities. Rosenberg said that at the time, he didn’t suspect Cellini — his friend for more than 20 years — was trying to shake him down, but instead believed that Rezko and Kelly were behind the scheme.
Webb also hit at Rosenberg’s credibility during Tuesday’s closing arguments, noting that the executive testified under a grant of immunity. He also noted that Levine accused Rosenberg of once agreeing to pay him a bribe — something Rosenberg adamantly denied in court.
No witness ever testified that Cellini directly asked Rosenberg for a contribution or threatened him, and Webb urged jurors to look through transcripts of FBI wiretap evidence for proof Cellini pressured his old friend.
“This is where the government said … he passed on the extortion message,” he said incredulously. “It’s not there.”
But prosecutors said Cellini’s role was never to be the strong-arm guy.
The two-part plan, they allege, was for Cellini to first break it gently to Rosenberg that Rezko and Kelly were upset he hadn’t contributed to Blagojevich despite landing $1 billion in state contacts. He was to tell Rosenberg that the pair would soon ask for him for a donation, tied to the $220 million.
Then, Levine was to call the producer, name the specific $1.5 million figure and explicitly warn Rosenberg that he wouldn’t get the pension-money investment if he refused.
In the end, prosecutors say, the plotters were so shocked by the furious producer’s threat to go to authorities that they frantically backpedaled. Within weeks, Rosenberg received the $220 million in pension money even though he never made the contribution.
But Cellini had understood that his part of the extortion message needed to be nuanced, prosecutor Chris Niewoehner said in his rebuttal — the last word to jurors.
“People who commit crimes don’t go around in complete sentences,” he said. “Cellini doesn’t need to say the words, `I’m shaking you down.’ Rosenberg got it.”
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