Chicago Sun-Times
Inside the Rod Blagojevich investigation and related cases

October 2011 Archives

By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times

To most people, Stuart Levine probably appears unassuming enough.

At 65, he works at a kiosk in a suburban shopping mall selling electronic cigarettes.

But if the man helping bring down some of the most powerful people in the state hoped to disappear into suburban obscurity, that hasn't quite happened.

Some days while behind that kiosk, the former Highland Park resident once worth $70 million gets hecklers.

Those are the people who recognize the now minimum-wage-earning Levine, having had a glimpse of his lurid history, painstakingly laid bare in public twice after Levine has spent parts of 21 days testifying in two high-profile criminal trials in Chicago.

He most recently sat as the star witness in the federal trial of Springfield power broker William Cellini.

If Cellini is convicted, the much-reviled Levine will have been central to sending some of the most prominent and back-room politicos to prison. That includes Tony Rezko, a onetime political fund-raiser to Barack Obama. Levine was the star witness in Rezko's 2008 trial, which led to his conviction.

Levine wore a wire against Ed Vrdolyak, a onetime alderman and behind-the-scenes political force for decades. Vrdolyak ended up pleading guilty to taking part in a $1.5 million bribery scheme.

Then there's former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, whose corruption investigation stemmed from a probe into corruption involving state boards that blossomed with Levine. Once he flipped, Levine spent years getting debriefed by various teams of federal agents and prosecutors.

"This was a massive undertaking," said Levine's lawyer, Jeffrey Steinback, of his client's role in cooperating since 2004. "You're talking about analyzing activities of the entire state government and having to understand who and what and how it worked and figuring out from the government's standpoint who was culpable and who wasn't."

Drugs and scams

On a recent day in federal court, a quiet settled over the courtroom as Stuart Levine answered questions about his past.

It wasn't just the drug-binge parties and snorting 10 lines of animal tranquilizer mixed with crystal meth at the Purple Hotel that stunned the courtroom.

It was an interminable list of scams that one man was able to pull off for decades.

Did he steal $6 million from one charity, keep half and never pay it back?

"Yes," he said plainly.

Levine, wearing an ill-fitting suit and glasses, was asked if he rewarded a dying friend who entrusted him with his estate by stealing $2 million from the dead man's children. "Yes," he said.

He'd answer "yes" to handing out bribes to politicians, to school board members, to a postal union worker and to using his position on state boards to work kickback deals amounting to millions of dollars. Levine even admitted that once the FBI caught him and he swore to tell the truth, he initially lied about Vrdolyak. Was that because, even while under FBI scrutiny, he still wanted to secretly take part in a $1.5 million kickback scheme with Vrdolyak? Levine answered predictably: "Yes."

"This man, every time he has ever been trusted to do anything, has lied, cheated and stolen his way through life," Cellini's attorney, Dan Webb told jurors last week.

Defense lawyers have repeatedly lambasted the government for pitting Levine, someone who has admitted to conning people out of millions of dollars, against defendants who aren't accused of pocketing any money.

Webb noted Levine spent the better part of his adult life committing reprehensible crimes, then pointed to an on-screen timeline: the evidence tied to the criminal allegations against Cellini spanned just a few days in May of 2004.

To read the rest: Click here


Rod Blagojevich was heard on tape calling U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. "repugnant" and a "bad guy."

However, on the way to his sentencing hearing, the former governor tried tapping Jackson's father for a letter of endorsement.

In another twist to the ever-complicated relationship between the Blagojevich and Jackson families, Blagojevich asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson to write letter of support to the sentencing judge.

It was an offer Rev. Jesse Jackson refused, according to a lawyer for both the elder Jackson and his son, the congressman.
"Rev. Jackson will not write a letter on behalf of Gov. Blagojevich," attorney Paul Langer told the Sun-Times Thursday.

Langer said Blagojevich's attorney, Aaron Goldstein, contacted him last month asking for help.

"Mr Blagojevich is facing a sentence that will put him in prison for a significant amount of time. Any sentence will keep him away from his family, particularly his two young daughters during a very vulnerable time for them," the request from Goldstein said. (Read letter here) "A letter from you describing the good things that Mr. Blagojevich did and the good character traits he displayed could help in reducing any sentence Judge (James) Zagel might impose."

Goldstein was critical to Rod Blagojevich's defense in the former governor's retrial and has been headed up collecting letters in preparation for Blagojevich's sentencing. Prosecutors have calculated Blagojevich's sentencing guideline range at 30 years to life, though they haven't publicly made a recommendation. Blagojevich's lawyers are asking for probation.

Goldstein could not be reached for comment Thursday.

It isn't uncommon for a defendant to make a plea for letters on a defendant's behalf. But the matter between the Blagojeviches and the Jacksons has increasingly soured over the years.
Rod Blagojevich and Jackson Jr. served in Congress together. And the former governor and the Rev. Jackson traveled together to Serbia in 1999 to help free soldiers there.

But the relationship grew acrimonious when the younger Jackson backed out of a promise to endorse Blagojevich for governor, according to testimony at Blagojevich's trial.

When Blagojevich was suddenly in control of naming the next U.S. Senator in 2008, Jackson Jr. tried to mend broken ties, according to Jackson's own testimony at trial. After Blagojevich's arrest later that same year, Jackson was an unnamed person in a federal criminal complaint. Blagojevich called Jackson to testify at his trial, which backfired when Jackson Jr. launched a new salvo -- he accused Blagojevich of a different shakedown.

On Thursday, the former governor's brother, Robert, said he has offered to testify before the house ethics committee investigating Jackson Jr. about overtures by two Jackson Jr. supporters.

At trial, Blagojevich was heard on tape disparaging Jackson Jr., at one point saying he and Lisa Madigan were "equally repugnant" to him.

"If they were both drowning and I could only save one, I really think I'd save Jesse," Blagojevich is heard saying on tape. "From a personal standpoint, he's less repugnant to me than (Lisa Madigan) is."

Robert Blagojevich today said he believes U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. should answer questions about his role in the alleged sale of the U.S. Senate seat -- an investigation that is sending his brother to prison.

A refresher: In May, Jackson testified in Rod Blagojevich's trial. He was called by the defense, but some of that blew up after the congressman made a new pay-to-play allegation against the former governor.

jacksonjr.jpeg Jesse Jackson Jr.

As for his own role, Jackson under oath said: "No I did not" direct or order anyone to offer Rod Blagojevich fund-raising in exchange for appointing him senator.
"I never directed anyone to raise money for another politician in my life, other than myself, in 16 years," Jackson testified.

Last week, the House committee on ethics announced it would restart its probe into Jackson (Rep. Jackson ethics.pdf).

robert1.jpeg Robert Blagojevich and his lawyer, Michael Ettinger

Words over a large overhead screen in a federal courtroom this morning read: "Cellini the extorter."

Federal prosecutors argued that longtime influential Springfield millionaire William Cellini wasn't the "ham in the ham sandwich" as his lawyers have suggested. Instead, Cellini was a willing, deliberate participant in an extortion scheme hatched by pension fund board member Stuart Levine and Rod Blagojevich fund-raisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly, they said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter said the government doesn't have to prove motive in its case.

But, she said, the motive came down to this for Cellini: "Continued access. Continued clout. Continued state business."

Porter said Cellini played ball with Levine, Rezko and Kelly because he wanted his investment fund, Commonwealth Realty, to continue to win hundreds of millions of dollars in work with the Teachers' Retirement System. Cellini, 76, is accused of passing on an extortionate message to Hollywood producer Tom Rosenberg, telling him if he wanted future investments for Rosenberg's firm, Capri Capital, he had to pay money to Blagojevich's campaign fund.

Defense lawyer Dan Webb quickly worked to villainize the prosecution's top witness, Levine, calling him a "whack job," 10 minutes into his closing remarks. Webb said he would talk for three hours. Levine admitted to concocting a series of schemes for the better part of his adult life. They involved ripping off people.

"This man, every time he's been trusted to do anything, he's lied, cheated and stolen throughout his life," Webb said. "That's the man the government says to trust."

Webb said Levine admitted to engaging in drug binging parties in the same time period he accuses Cellini of taking part in crimes. Webb told jurors repeatedly that Levine presents reasonable doubt in the case. In part, because the drugs likely affected Levine's memory, Webb argued.

Webb chided Levine's testimony where he said "it's possible" 30 years of drug use has clouded his memory.
"It's possible?" Webb said. "That's an understatement."

Webb also poked at the government for handing Levine a "free pass...on every single drug crime."

Levine wasn't charged for his drug use. His plea deal calls for a prison term of five years, seven months.

Webb was about 45 minutes into his closings before lunch break. When he concludes, Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner will give the government's rebuttal.

By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times

A Hollywood producer testified in federal court Thursday morning that a Springfield power broker told him his business with the state had been put on hold because he hadn't contributed to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign fund.
Producer and businessman Tom Rosenberg said his firm, Capri Capital, did not initially get the $220 million in state teachers' pension fund business it was slotted to get.
When he asked Springfield millionaire William Cellini about it, Cellini told him he had angered Blagojevich fund-raisers Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly by not kicking in to the then-governor's campaign fund, he said.
"Bill told me that Rezko and Kelly said it would not go forward until Capri made the appropriate (contribution)," Rosenberg testified. "He was telling me why it was stopped and it would be stopped until money was contributed to (Rod) Blagojevich."
Rosenberg said he "screamed and cursed," at Cellini in that May 2004 phone call.
"I told Bill that I would not be shaken down," Rosenberg said. "I told him I would stand on the corner of State and Madison and discuss this ... I screamed and cursed. I wanted him to pass on the full level of my fury to Rezko and Kelly."
Rosenberg said Cellini told him he would call the director of the Teachers' Retirement System to see about Capri's $220 million.
Cellini later called Rosenberg with the news that he'd get his money.
"It was OK with (Bauman) if it was OK with the 'pope'," Rosenberg said Cellini told him. Bauman referred to Cellini as the pope, he said.
Rosenberg also said he and Cellini previously talked about Rezko and Kelly having tried to wield control over TRS investments. Rosenberg said Cellini told him Bauman was going to have a "nervous breakdown" over Rezko and Kelly's demands.
The testimony combats Cellini's contention that he was an unwitting participant, or "the ham in the ham sandwich" in the alleged extortion scheme. Cellini is on trial, accused of conspiring with board member Stuart Levine, Rezko and Kelly to extort Rosenberg.

By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times

As Rod Blagojevich's day of reckoning looms, his wife, Patti, has made an appeal on Facebook, asking people to write letters to the judge on her husband's behalf.

Her post reads:
"We have been getting so many requests from people who would like to help us by writing a letter to the judge for sentencing that I would like to post the email of one of our attorneys Aaron Goldstein: He would be able to help you with how to get the letter to the right place. Thank you to all of you who have supported us during this hard time. Rod and Patti and Amy and Annie."

Patti Blagojevich said she doesn't yet know the sentencing date, but wrote that it could happen later this month or in early November. Blagojevich's attorney, Shelly Sorosky, has said it could happen in early November. The ex-governor's lawyers want probation, while prosecutors have calculated Blagojevich's sentencing guidelines at 30 years to life but haven't made public their recommendation yet.

Among the Facebook comments:
"Patti, Rod was a great Gov, and much better than that jerkoff thats in there now."

"Yes, Rod for President!!!!!!!!"

Another wrote: "To the Blagojevich Family, I would be happy to write a ltr on his behalf. This kind of stuff has to stop. Everyone should read his book & truely understand what really occurred..."

Prosecutors: Cellini trial could wrap up by week's end

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By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times

Federal prosecutors this afternoon said William Cellini's trial could be headed for closing arguments Friday.

Defense lawyer Dan Webb is likely to conclude his questioning of star witness Stuart Levine on Tuesday. Assistant U.S. Attorney Chris Niewoehner said the government will put on the stand an out-of-state witness (presumably the victim of the alleged extortion, Tom Rosenberg) Wednesday
and could be finished with its case by Thursday at the latest.

Webb said he gave a list of defense witnesses to Niewoehner. Still, Niewoehner said closings could happen by Friday.

Cellini is charged with attempting to extort Rosenberg, a Hollywood producer trying to get state business with the Teachers' Retirement System. His trial began with jury selection on Oct. 3. He accused of asking Rosenberg to ante up to Rod Blagojevich's gubernatorial campaign fund in exchange for the TRS business.

By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times/
The star witness in the trial of Springfield millionaire William Cellini on Monday detailed day-long drug binges with male friends at the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood that
included snorting 10 lines of a potent mix of drugs. The parties and drug binging happened around the same time he allegedly conspired with Cellini.
Under questioning by Cellini lawyer and former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb, Stuart Levine admitted that on the same day - May 8, 2004 -- he was captured on tape talking to Cellini about state pension deals, he was on an FBI tape arranging a drug pick-up with his drug dealer.
Webb, who is hoping to show Levine has both memory issues and a propensity to lie, was not allowed to play the brief recording to jurors but asked Levine, who admitted to it.
"Never when I'm dealing with Mr. Cellini," Levine told Webb, when asked if he were taking drugs when he was dealing with Cellini.
"Do you think your drug usage is impacting your ability to remember?" Webb asked at one point.
"It's possible," Levine said.
Levine said over the years, he paid for all the drugs used in his parties. Over eight-to-10 hours, Levine would snort 10 lines that were a mixture of Ketamine and Crystal Meth.
"Did you do that so you could continually stay high throughout the day?" Webb asked.
"Yes," said Levine.
Sometimes Levine would pay for a private jet to fly his male companions to hotels in Springfield and Bloomington and take part in the parties, he said.
Levine said he's given his companions about $500,000 in cash over the years.
One of the men threatened to expose Levine's secret lifestyle if Levine didn't pay him $300,000, he said. Levine paid up and when the man returned for more money, Levine told his lawyers, who told the government. He never heard from the man again.
"Were you glad it stopped?" Webb asked. "Yes," Levine said.
"Did you find that to be a benefit to you?" Webb said.
"Yes," Levine said.
At the same time Levine was engaging in drug binges two-to-three times a month, he served on the board of Interventions, which operated drug rehab facilities.
"Did that seem a little deceitful to you?" Webb asked. The judge blocked Levine from answering.
Levine has admitted that when the feds caught up to him in 2004, he lied to the federal court system about his drug use so he could be freed on bond.
"Will you lie to this court system if you think you'll benefit from it?" Webb asked.
Levine responded loudly: "No I will not."
Cellini is charged with conspiring with Levine and two fund-raisers to Rod Blagojevich, Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko. Cellini is accused of passing on a message to Hollywood Producer Tom Rosenberg that Rosenberg was expected to kick in money to Blagojevich's campaign fund if he wanted his investment firm, Capri Capital, to win a $220 million investment from the Teachers' Retirement System. Cellini wielded significant influence over TRS, according to testimony.

By Natasha Korecki
Chicago Sun-Times

Hands folded before him, wearing a pink tie and a plain expression, Springfield's ultimate power broker sat calmly in a federal courtroom as government prosecutors painted him as an extortionist who used state employees as his puppets.

William Cellini, whose companies over the last several decades won hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts, sometimes gently kicked his legs as he listened to Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Deis tell jurors that Cellini worked "beneath the surface" to control how state money was doled out.

Cellini, 77, is accused of conspiring to extort Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, allegedly telling him he had to cough up campaign cash for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich if his firm wanted to win $220 million in state work from the Teachers' Retirement System.

"This case is about extortion. It's about abuse of power," Deis said. "It was a shakedown, ladies and gentleman, plain and simple."

To read the Sun-Times story: Click here

Lawyers representing William Cellini continue to lose battles over blocking jurors who have a strong distaste for government lobbyists and fund-raisers.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel has denied multiple requests by defense lawyer Dan Webb to strike people for cause who have said they don't trust lobbyists. It's happening as we inch our way toward getting a full jury in the Cellini case. It is still possible that opening statements begin before day's end.

Today, Webb made a bid to remove from the jury pool, an individual who said in his jury questionnaire that lobbyists or fund-raisers who give lots of money to politicians usually turn out to be corrupt.

Zagel said he wouldn't bounce the juror. That significant campaign contributions were tied to corruption is "regarded as a historically true statement," he said.

That same potential juror also said he had listened to a speech given by a juror in the trial of Rod Blagojevich. Webb said that shows the person was seeking out information on related cases.

But Zagel said he didn't believe it was an issue. Cellini's name did not come up in Blagojevich's trial, he said, and he doubted that the juror made mention of Cellini in the speech.

The defense will still have an opportunity to use one of their own 10 strikes to remove those they don't want on the jury.

Cellini has for decades acted as a major fund-raiser for various governors. He's accused of trying to extort Hollywood Producer Thomas Rosenberg by asking him to pony up to Blagojevich's political fund as Rosenberg's firm sought state business.

Most teachers won't make it on Cellini's jury

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Downstate millionaire William Cellini doesn't want teachers who paid into the Teachers' Retirement System to sit on his jury.

Cellini's lawyers also asked U.S. District Judge James Zagel this morning if they could block from the jury anyone whose spouses or close family members are teachers.

That's because testimony at Cellini's federal trial is expected to accuse him of holding vast influence over the TRS board, allegedly controlling the strings from behind the scenes so that his real estate company could win hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts. Cellini is charged with conspiring with a former TRS board member, Stuart Levine, to extort the Hollywood producer of "Million Dollar Baby" into giving Rod Blagojevich a campaign contribution in exchange for getting business with TRS.

Prosecutors said they would not object to blocking jurors who are teachers or whose spouses are teachers but oppose blocking beyond that.

This would not include Chicago Public School teachers, since they are not part of TRS and have their own pension plan.

After the discussion, the second day of jury selection resumed and the first potential juror questioned was a retired teacher.

She said she collects a pension.

From who? "The Teachers' Retirement System," she said.

At that, Cellini and his lawyers all looked down.

Court ended early Monday in day one of William Cellini's trial.

Just seven potential jurors were questioned before U.S. District Judge James Zagel said he had to end the session to tend to other court business.

Cellini was in court today for the first time, flanked by two high-powered attorneys from Winston & Strawn -- including the lawyer for former Gov. George Ryan, Dan Webb. Also representing him, veteran Chicago defense lawyer Terry Gillespie.

Some Cellini family members and supporters sat in the courtroom's first bench.

Cellini, a Downstate millionaire, is accused of trying to force the Hollywood producer of "Million Dollar Baby," to pony up to Rod Blagojevich's campaign fund in exchange for state business.

Zagel said jury selection will continue 10:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Potential jurors in William Cellini's trial were in federal court this morning, but so far, jury selection hasn't started in the corruption case of the Downstate power broker.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers were still in chambers with U.S. District Judge James Zagel discussing issues connected to the trial, court personnel said this morning. They're expected in court at about 12:15 p.m. Make that 1:15, according to the most recent update.

Last week, lawyers went behind closed doors to talk about star witness Stuart Levine and how much leeway Zagel would give the defense in his questioning.

Levine, who has pleaded guilty to using his influence on state boards to win kickbacks, has a salty history that includes drug use and partying. Prosecutors had asked Zagel to block the defense from asking about some of those issues.

Zagel has not yet ruled on the matter.

Cellini, a onetime co-defendant of Rod Blagojevich, is accused of trying to extort a Hollywood producer who sought state business.

Tony Rezko's sentencing date has moved again.

Today, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve set the convicted businessman's new date for Nov. 22.

It was supposed to happen Oct. 21.

Prosecutors said with the trial of Springfield businessman William Cellini beginning today, they could bump right into Rezko's sentencing. Prosecutors did not want to be in the position where Cellini's jury could be deliberating and big news comes out of Rezko's sentencing.

Rezko, a Blagojevich adviser and fund-raiser, was convicted in 2008 of using his influence with the former governor to profit off of state deals. Cellini is accused of conspiring with state board member Stuart Levine, Rezko and the late Blagojevich adviser Christopher Kelly to extort a businessman seeking state business. Rezko has been in custody since his June 2008 conviction.

St. Eve asked for position papers on Rezko's sentencing by Nov. 1st.

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