UPDATED 11/01/11 – 4:38 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) — Illinois power broker and millionaire businessman William Cellini has been found guilty on two of four counts related to a conspiracy to squeeze the Oscar-winning producer of “Million Dollar Baby” for a campaign contribution.
Cellini was convicted of conspiracy to commit extortion, and aiding and abetting in the solicitation of a bribe. But he was acquitted of attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit mail fraud.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s John Cody reports
The jury reached a verdict Tuesday after more than a week of deliberations, and after one of the original 12 jurors withdrew and had to be replaced.
Cellini, a man billed as the ultimate power broker, who pulled strings in state government behind the scenes, stayed in the background again on Tuesday after the verdict, letting his attorney do all the talking.
“This case will continue on appeal. It could very well be retried someday, so I’ve asked him not to make any comments,” defense attorney Dan Webb said. “Whatever the jury determined, whatever he did was not even enough to make it an attempt to commit extortion.”
Cellini showed no emotion as the verdict was read in court. The courtroom remained quiet, but his attorney expressed relief.
“We’re very pleased that Mr. Cellini was nor found guilty of what we believe are the two most serious charges in this indictment,” Webb said.
He also said he’s confident the convictions will be overturned on appeal.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said Cellini’s conviction sends a “very, very loud message” to backroom deal-makers across the state that federal authorities are watching and willing to prosecute.
Fitzgerald also said that prosecutors are “gratified” by the verdict.
Prosecutors said Cellini conspired with Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, and former state-board member Stuart Levine to squeeze movie executive Thomas Rosenberg for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich by threatening Rosenberg’s financial company with the loss of $220 million in state pension money to be invested with Rosenberg’s firm.
Defense attorneys argued that Cellini never delivered any such message to Rosenberg, but prosecutors focused on wiretap recordings of him discussing the alleged plot with Levine and others.
Fitzgerald dismissed the defense argument that Cellini never told Rosenberg to make a contribution or lose his state business.
“He wasn’t a messenger or a mailman, he was the guy who shaped the message. He was on the inside,” Fitzgerald said. “When he talked to the people doing the extortion, he used the word ‘we.’ He lied to Rosenberg and denied what was going on and tried to cover it up. And, as he said, he acted like he was an innocent bystander.”
During her closing arguments, prosecutor Julie Porter played a secret FBI wiretap recording to jurors of a mirthful-sounding Cellini as he appeared to talk about the extortion. Porter focused jurors’ attention on one sound: Cellini’s laugh.
“That is what corruption sounds like,” the prosecutor said, her voice suddenly rising.
Cellini wouldn’t have pocketed any money from the shakedown. But by going along with it, he saw a chance to further ingratiate himself with the powers that be, Porter said. The payoff he hoped for? “Continued access, continued clout, continued status.”
Webb had said Cellini got suckered into the plot, ending up “the ham in a ham sandwich.”
The defendant is not an accidental extortionist,” said lead prosecutors Chris Niewoehner. He added later, “The ham doesn’t know he’s in the ham sandwich?”
The defense focused on Levine, the government’s star witness. A board member on the $30 billion Teachers’ Retirement System that controlled the pension funds Rosenberg hoped to reinvest, Levine was the only witness to claim direct knowledge of Cellini’s involvement. Rezko is in federal custody and did not testify. Kelly committed suicide in 2009.
There was no lack of ammunition with which to attack Levine’s credibility.
On the stand, he admitted to being a serial swindler, once cheating his dead friend’s estate out of $2 million. He spoke about abusing cocaine and other drugs for decades — sometimes at marathon parties.
Webb implored jurors not to heed that testimony, saying, “All you have is Levine’s word — which is worthless.”
The defense argued at trial that Levine was responsible for any extortion and that he wasn’t a credible witness. Webb called him a “wack-job.”
Blagojevich himself is awaiting sentencing by U.S. District Judge James B. Zagel, the same judge who is hearing the Cellini case.
Theoretically, Cellini could get 30 years in prison for the convictions against him, although he is sure to get less than that.
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