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

How a drug-addled thief, serial conman took down Illinois' most powerful

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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.

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This page contains a single entry by Natasha Korecki published on October 31, 2011 8:00 AM.

Rod Blagojevich asked the Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. to write letter to sentencing judge was the previous entry in this blog.

Fitzgerald on Cellini guilty verdict: Shaking people down, threatening lost business is a crime is the next entry in this blog.

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