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A somewhat testy U.S. District Judge James Zagel in court this afternoon suggested that reporters who had contact with a juror in the trial of William Cellini would be asked to turn over their notes.

Zagel, who is set to sentence ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Tuesday, made the suggestion during an afternoon hearing in which a lawyer from the Chicago Tribune appeared to intervene, asking that Zagel open up an in-chambers conference tomorrow regarding the Cellini case to the public.

Zagel opened up tomorrow's hearing by holding it today.

"This is the morning conference," he told lawyers before him.

Cellini's attorneys have asked that his guilty verdict be thrown out because a juror hadn't disclosed she had a felony record. Zagel has said that an evidentiary hearing may be warranted.

Zagel said he set a conference for tomorrow in his chambers, he said, because he simply wanted one lawyer from each side to give him possible days they would be free in December -- a busy month -- if he were to schedule a hearing. He did though, ask that lawyers submit to him, under seal, "proposed questions," to be asked at a hearing.

Zagel snapped at lawyers who started asking questions about the details of the type of hearing he had in mind.

"I'm not answering that question. I just want dates and I want certain information," Zagel said.

Zagel then told the Tribune lawyer James Klenk he suspected the media wouldn't oppose placing the questions under seal, citing "general journalistic practice" not to reveal questions to a source before an interview. "So you can ponder if that's an issue you want to raise," Zagel told the lawyer, with a slight smile.

Zagel then said he suspected that if the juror in question had spoken to reporters, subpoenas could be forthcoming.

"I want to avoid a dispute over reporters' notes," Zagel said. He said it would be "helpful to the court" to know if the juror had spoken publicly about one issue, presumably her criminal background. "You can start preparing your briefs," Zagel told Klenk, who did not respond.

The Sun-Times had interviewed the juror the day of the verdict. The juror though refused a follow-up interview on the question of whether she had a criminal background.

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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"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.

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

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.

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/nkorecki@suntimes.com
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.

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