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

November 2011 Archives

A federal judge on Monday denied Rod Blagojevich's quest to play up to 180 previously unaired recordings at his sentencing hearing next week in a strongly-worded order that rips the defense for the last-minute bid.
"The filing of this particular motion at this late date is simply wrongful," U.S. District Judge James Zagel wrote. "What this motion requests is my blind approval of the use of whatever excerpts it decides are relevant to "lack of ill intent" and admissible under the loosened standards of hearsay at sentencing. That request is
denied."
Zagel said Blagojevich's Thanksgiving Day filing requesting to play parts of 180 different tapes was inappropriate, given that the defense has had the information for so long.
"I have effectively been presented with a motion on which I cannot make an informed ruling," Zagel wrote. "I have no way of knowing or anything upon which to base a judgment except the assertion of one party that whatever it might be, it is critical."
However, Zagel did grant the defense request to be heard on a separate matter, involving what Blagojevich's lawyers call "new information" regarding government witness John Wyma. Zagel set a Friday hearing to discuss the matter.
Prosecutors earlier Monday urged that the request to play previously un-aired tapes at trial be denied in part because they say the ex-governor is trying to dispute an already resolved question: that he's guilty.
"To the extent the defendant intends to use the sentencing hearing to attempt to continue prove his innocence of the charges that the jury found him guilty, the defendant's use of the calls is inappropriate because (a) the calls do not support his innocence and (b) the issue of guilt has already been resolved," prosecutors wrote.

The judge in William Cellini's case appears to want lawyers from the trial in his chambers on Friday, presumably to discuss a juror whose criminal background has come under question.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel said last week he would set the case for a "status hearing" on or after Dec. 1 "to discuss the ambit of further proceedings on this issue," involving a Cellini juror's undisclosed felony background.

In a written order, Zagel said the revelation that a juror was convicted of felonies after voting to convict Cellini on two counts and acquit him on two others, does not necessarily warrant a mistrial. He did say that it warrants an evidentiary hearing. Cellini's lawyers have said they want the guilty verdicts overturned based on the juror's undisclosed history.

Today, Zagel issued just a brief docket entry noting a Friday "in-chambers" hearing, which usually means it's not public. He did not specify whether it had to do with the juror issue.

By Natasha Korecki
Federal Courts Reporter/nkorecki@suntimes.com

A federal judge has ruled that a juror's failure to disclose felony convictions before being picked to serve in the trial of downstate power broker William Cellini is unlikely to warrant an automatic mistrial.
U.S. District Judge James Zagel said in a ruling today that the revelation alone that a female juror was a felon does not automatically throw out the jury's verdict.
The matter, though, warrants a hearing, he said, saying there remains a question over why the juror didn't disclose her background. Still, he said it would likely be up to the defense to prove the juror held "actual bias," by failing to do so. Zagel set a Dec. 1 court date to discuss the matter further.
Zagel said the situation boils down to one pertinent question: "when a felon slips through the juror screening process does that felon's service on the jury lead to automatic mistrial? Every federal court of appeal that has addressed this issue has answered 'no,'" Zagel writes.
"It is the defendant's burden to cast sufficient doubt on the juror's impartiality," Zagel wrote. "If ... a juror offers a bias-free explanation which the courts find credible--such as confusion or embarrassment about admitting to felony convictions before a large audience in open court - then bias cannot be presumed."
It's up to the discretion of individual judges to run background checks within the northern district of Illinois. In most cases, checks are not run. They were run in the case of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In that case, there was a special pool impaneled and potential jurors knew ahead of time that they would be called for the ex-governor's case. In Cellini's case, the jurors were part of a larger pool brought to the courthouse and could have been called to serve in any of a number of trials starting that day, court officials said.
Just two federal courthouses in the country routinely run background checks of jurors, U.S. District Court Clerk Michael Dobbins said. Court officials say there are stumbling blocks to running checks in every case and they include cost and time of running the checks on jury pools, risk of getting it wrong and accidentally excluding the wrong potential juror of a crime as well as disenfranchising potential jurors who are called to serve by threatening to publicly expose old crimes. The court also looks to find parties not involved in the case to securely run the checks, such as the U.S. Probation Office or Pretrial Services. However, juror matters are not part of the mission for either agency and each is facing budget cutbacks.

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Tony Rezko dished out insider details on Illinois corruption. But prosecutors still want the onetime friend to Barack Obama to serve 11 to 15 years in prison.

Should a judge give him a break?

Rezko cooperated with federal authorities -- but not until after his 2008 conviction on 16 of 24 counts of corruption under Blagojevich's tenure as governor. Prosecutors never used Rezko as a witness in subsequent criminal cases.

It's left the once high-profile defendant, set to be sentenced on Tuesday in Chicago federal court, in a precarious position.

Rezko volunteered to go to jail immediately, volunteered to cooperate and volunteered to delay his sentencing so he could be called as a witness at both of Blagojevich's trials as well as the trial of Springfield power broker William Cellini, according to his lawyers.

Being behind bars -- but not sentenced -- meant he endured more oppressive prison conditions than most white collar criminals who are usually sentenced then shipped off to prison camps, his lawyers said.

But in the end, the government never called him to the witness stand. While Rezko's lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve. to sentence him to time served, the government has requested a stiff penalty: 11 to 15 years in prison.

Prosecutors argue Rezko's cooperation wasn't that helpful, that he lied to them in debriefing sessions and that their proposed penalty would cover a second criminal case before a different judge involving loan fraud.

"Rezko's cooperation was heavily tainted by the timing of when he decided to cooperate, by his repeated lies to judges, and by his pervasive and sustained lies made to the government over the first several months of his purported cooperation with the government," prosecutors wrote in a recent filing.

Because he was in talks with federal authorities, Rezko served about nine months in the most restrictive jail conditions at the downtown Metropolitan Correctional Center -- a Special Housing Unit called the "SHU" where "high-risk" inmates -- including accused terrorists and currently, a suspected high-ranking leader of a violent Mexican drug cartel -- are held.

It's also a place where the jail houses high-profile defendants or those cooperating, under the argument that it's for their own protection.

Legal observers say a judge can credit defendants for harsher conditions -- as well as for their cooperation, even if the prosecution doesn't use the witness at trial.

"A lot of courts over the years have thought about and considered the conditions of confinement," during sentencing, defense lawyer Patrick Cotter said.

Scott Fawell, onetime chief of staff of convicted ex-Gov. George Ryan, said time in the SHU should not be shrugged off. Fawell once spent two nights there and pleaded with prison officials to allow him into general population.

"I said: 'I'll sign anything, just get me out of here,'" Fawell said in an interview. There's no TV, no card-playing, no interaction with other inmates, he said.

"You can't see outside," he said. "You have to stick your hand-cuffed hands through a slot to get food."


While William Cellini's attorney Dan Webb says he will ask for a mistrial based on a disclosure that a juror had two felony convictions that were undisclosed -- not so fast, says the U.S. Attorney's office.

The office just released a statement saying that a felony does not automatically disqualify a juror from serving.
According to federal statute, among the reasons a juror cannot serve: "has a charge pending against him for the commission of, or has been convicted in a State or Federal court of record of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for more than one year and his civil rights have not been restored."
However, there is a question - and an expected legal battle - over when someone's "civil rights" have been restored.
The U.S. Attorney's statement:
"An article in today's Chicago Tribune states that 'Federal law generally disqualifies felons from serving on juries.' This statement is off the mark. Federal law disqualifies persons who have been convicted of felonies from serving on juries only so long as their 'civil rights have not been restored.' Under Illinois law, civil rights are automatically restored upon the 'completion of any sentence of imprisonment or upon discharge from probation, conditional discharge or periodic imprisonment.' Thus, a person who has completed his or her sentence on a felony conviction is not disqualified from serving on a federal jury.
We decline to comment on facts specific to the Cellini case because it is appropriate to reserve our comments for the courtroom on matters that could be the subject of litigation. In general, however, federal law appropriately provides great respect for a jury's verdict, and holds that it should not be lightly disturbed."

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This time, the invitation didn't come by way of subpoena.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) appeared in federal court Monday night, just one courtroom away from where he took the stand as a defense witness for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Jackson was invited by the Northern District of Illinois -- as were all members of the Illinois delegation -- to talk about looming budget cuts expected to hit court personnel in Chicago and around the nation. So far, Jackson's the only one who accepted the invite, according to U.S. Court Clerk Michael Dobbins.

But as it goes for Jackson these days, he couldn't escape Blagojevich questions.

The congressman, who faces a House ethics inquiry, said he looked forward to going through the scrutiny and in response to a Robert Blagojevich salvo last month, said he doesn't know the man. He said a "relationship" with the ex-governor's brother was created by the media in the media.

"I don't know him. I have never had a conversation with him," Jackson said. "I wouldn't know him if he were in the audience," he added, scanning the crowd.

Robert Blagojevich last month offered to testify as part of Jackson's ethics probe, saying the congressman should answer questions about his role in the alleged sale of Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

As for the looming personnel cuts, Jackson said he would take the issues raised by court personnel back to Washington and reassured those attending that pensions already earned would not be touched. Dobbins, Chief Judge James Holderman, as well as courthouse personnel, attended.

Dobbins said court personnel across the country and in Chicago face more than 13 percent payroll reduction. Furloughs are under consideration here, he said.

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Rod Blagojevich's sentencing date was set this afternoon by U.S. District Judge James Zagel during a hearing that was not posted on Zagel's public schedule or on the official court docket.

The courtroom gallery was empty, except for a Chicago Sun-Times reporter.

After asking if the former governor waived his appearance, Zagel noted that the only order of business was to set Blagojevich's sentencing date.

Zagel had postponed Blagojevich's original Oct. 6 date because he was also presiding over the trial of Springfield businessman William Cellini, a longtime behind-the-scenes power broker in state government.

Blagojevich's lawyer, Shelly Sorosky, said in court Monday he thought the sentencing would take two days. Sorosky said the ex-governor would testify at the hearing.

"I'm sure the defendant will be making an allocation," Sorosky told Zagel. "I think I can safely say that."

Zagel told the defense to notify prosecutors by Dec. 1 if it intended to call any witnesses.

For the prosecution's part, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar said he thinks most of the witnesses had been before the judge and they had been cross-examined at trial.

"I don't know what can be illuminated by calling more witnesses," Schar said.

The Chicago Sun-Times previously reported that federal prosecutors calculated Blagojevich's sentencing guideline range at 30 years to life. They have not made their recommendation public yet, though. On Friday, prosecutors revealed they would ask that Blagojevich fund-raiser Tony Rezko spend 11 to 15 years in prison. Rezko cooperated with the government after he was convicted in 2008 but prosecutors complained he wasn't that helpful and initially minimized his role in various schemes.

Blagojevich's defense team, which has been collecting letters in support of the former governor, has said it would ask that Blagojevich get probation for his offenses.

In June, a jury convicted Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts.


By Natasha Korecki
Federal Courts Reporter

Federal prosecutors say Tony Rezko deserves to spend up to 15 years in prison for his crimes in two separate cases and that he damaged his own credibility by lying to the court.

Prosecutors for the first time publicly addressed why they never called him to the witness stand after he began cooperating in 2008. They say over 19 meetings with them, he didn't fully tell the truth about his own wrongdoing until he was confronted by agents with new information. Prosecutors said juries would never have accepted his word.

"Rezko's cooperation was heavily tainted by the timing of when he decided to cooperate, by his repeated lies to
judges, and by his pervasive and sustained lies made to the government over the first
several months of his purported cooperation with the government," prosecutors wrote.

The recommendation is in drastic contrast from the time served that Rezko's lawyers are asking U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve to impose at his Nov. 22 sentencing. Prosecutors say they believe Rezko should face 11 to 15 years in prison for a kickback case before St. Eve and a separate loan fraud case that was before U.S. District Judge James Zagel.

The government's recommendation is significantly more steep than the roughly five and a half years that serial conman and drug abuser Stuart Levine faces. Levine is accused of conspiring with Rezko during Rod Blagojevich's administrations to win kickbacks from state deals.

"From the government's perspective, the major difference between Levine and
Rezko is not the quality or quantity of their past crimes - both Rezko and Levine are
guilty of terrible crimes," prosecutors wrote. "The major difference between Levine and Rezko is that
Levine's cooperation with the government has been truly remarkable, while Rezko's has
not. For his many faults, Levine's cooperation is directly responsible for convictions in
difficult and important cases against, among others, Rezko, William Cellini, and Edward
Vrdolyak."

They say Levine cooperated wore a wire and cooperated "pro-actively." Levine has testified in two major trials. But Rezko's lawyers argue, that prosecutors could have called Rezko to testify -- he was prepared to do so -- but they never did.

"In contrast, the best that can be said of Rezko's cooperation is that, after
obstructing the government's investigation and his court proceedings and going to trial,
he helped the government develop several witnesses who testified against Rod
Blagojevich," prosecutors wrote. "The timing, quality, and utility of Rezko's cooperation pales in comparison
to Levine's. As a result, while Rezko and Levine are roughly equivalent when it comes to
their past crimes, Rezko deserves a significantly higher sentence than Levine because
Levine's cooperation was so superior to Rezko's."

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In a position paper asking a judge to free him from prison now, rather than have to do more time, Tony Rezko says that
after spending 20 years in Chicago politics he was "shocked" by a request
that came from Rod Blagojevich.

"Mr. Rezko was shocked that Blagojevich explicitly directed him to work with Chris Kelly to find ways for
Blagojevich, Monk, Kelly and Rezko to make money through state action,"
Rezko's lawyers wrote in a sentencing filing.

It also says he didn't trust Stuart Levine until someone called Rezko to back Levine: Bill Cellini.

"Rezko knew Cellini was the ultimate insider during the 26 years of Republican administrations that preceded Blagojevich, and Rezko knew that Cellini had made tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars from state business during that time period. As the evidence at trial showed, Cellini was concerned about protecting his influence and the
individuals he had placed on various state boards, so he proposed an "accommodation" to the
new administration by which he agreed to raise campaign funds for Blagojevich in exchange for
the governor's agreement to protect the "status quo" by leaving board members loyal to Cellini
in place," lawyers wrote. "In short, Cellini had in place for years the apparatus that Blagojevich wanted Kelly and
Rezko to build, and Levine was practically begging to maintain and even increase his thoroughly
corrupt influence."

Rezko's sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 22.

Read more here: Rezko asks for time served.

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"Convicted power broker Bill Cellini undoubtedly whispered in the ear of many a politician during his era of influence in state politics, but none is more famous than Abraham Lincoln," our Springfield Bureau Chief Dave McKinney writes today.

Cellini's likeness is pictured alongside the 16th president in an oil painting at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. A spokesman said it isn't coming down, despite Cellini's conviction on two counts of federal corruption on Tuesday.

"The artist never officially told us who the people he used for models in the picture are," spokesman Dave Blanchette said.

Cellini's wife, Julie, is a member of the Lincoln Presidential Library foundation board as well as the Historic Preservation Agency board.

Last year, lawmakers effectively blocked an oil painting of convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich from hanging inside the state Capitol's Hall of Governors.

BY NATASHA KORECKI AND MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA Staff Reporters

Jurors in William Cellini's trial got along so well during their deliberations, that after reaching a unanimous verdict on Tuesday, they assembled at the nearby Elephant & Castle restaurant and bar near the downtown federal courthouse.

About eight jurors who spent the last 3 ½ weeks or so listening to evidence in Cellini's case toasted their conclusion to the case, which ended in a split verdict with two guilty counts and two not guilty counts.

Juror Paulette Green of Round Lake Park said the panel of 10 women and two men had all but decided the case on Friday but wanted to take the weekend to think about it. Not long after arriving this morning, they voted to convict on two of four counts.

Green said that it was a combination of factors -- including tapes -- that caused her to convict.

"There really wasn't just one thing," Green said. "We had to focus on the letter of the law. We had to go over all the information."

The secret recordings containing conversations of Cellini and star witness Stuart Levine were just a piece of the puzzle, she said.

To read more: Click here

(See Webb's statement below)

BY NATASHA KORECKI, MAUDLYNE IHEJIRIKA AND MARK KONKOL
Chicago Sun-Times


A federal jury found William Cellini, a Springfield power broker who for decades pulled the strings in state government, guilty Tuesday of conspiracy to commit extortion and aiding and abetting bribery.

Cellini was found not guilty of two other counts against him, attempted extortion and mail and wire fraud.

Cellini's daughter, Claudia, doubled over and put her head to her knees when she heard the first guilty verdict read. Cellini, 76, himself showed no reaction when the verdict was read. His wife, Julie, remained equally poker-faced.

Cellini faces a maximum of 30 years in prison for those two convictions.

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Outside the courtroom, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said what Cellini did was not simply lobbying.

"What allows people to tell people, 'You can't do business with the state of Illinois unless you pay up, either in the form of a campaign contribution or a bribe'? That's extortion and there's no 'gray area' about that. ... Shaking someone down and threatening them with lost business is a crime."

Read the rest of today's article: Click here


Here's Dan Webb's full statement: STATEMENT OF DAN K. WEBB, ATTORNEY FOR WILLIAM CELLINI

We are very gratified that the jury found Mr. Cellini not guilty of the most serious charges in the indictment. Mr. Cellini was found not guilty of the major conspiracy Count, Count 1, in which the Government alleged a conspiracy to commit honest services crimes for 15 months. Further, the jury found Mr. Cellini not guilty of even attempting to extort money from Mr. Rosenberg, Count 3. Whatever the jury determined Mr. Cellini did to be guilty of a conspiracy to commit extortion, Count 2, that conduct did not even rise to the level of being an attempted extortion.

As far as the Counts on which Mr. Cellini was found guilty, we are confident we will be able to obtain a reversal on appeal.

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