CHICAGO (MCT) — William Cellini, a longtime Republican lobbyist and fundraiser, had operated in the shadows of Illinois government, cozying up to politicians in both parties to build formidable clout and expand his influence and wealth.
On Thursday, Cellini — convicted last year as part of the takedown of the scandal-plagued Blagojevich administration — stood before a federal judge in a packed courtroom and pleaded for mercy, asking to be spared time behind bars in “the twilight of his remaining years.”
“These five years have been the most difficult and trying of my life. ... My health is broken,” Cellini, who turns 78 next month, said. “My life expectancy is very short.”
But U.S. District Judge James Zagel refused the plea for a sentence of probation, saying Cellini made a series of “unwise decisions” when he joined with other Springfield insiders, including Blagojevich’s closest advisers, and conspired to extort a Hollywood producer for a campaign contribution.
“What he did was not an accident,” the judge said after noting Cellini’s years of experience. “It is the nature and culture of Springfield, and Washington, for that matter, that people like to be able to be thought of as people who have influence. That is hard to give up even as you are aging.”
Zagel then sentenced Cellini to one year and a day in prison. Under federal sentencing rules, Cellini is expected to serve 10 months.
There was little reaction in the courtroom, which was filled with Cellini supporters.
Cellini is the last major defendant in the wide-ranging Operation Board Games investigation to be sentenced. Of the roughly 15 convictions in the probe — which included Blagojevich, several of his top advisers and a former Chicago alderman — Cellini stood out as someone accused of using decades of work as a lobbyist and fundraiser to get close to the decision-makers and benefit from it.
“I think there is something to be said for incarceration for a person in Bill Cellini’s position,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro after the sentencing. “In certain communities, sentences of incarceration do send a message and this is a small community we are talking about — the bipartisan cabal of Illinois, the people who are the behind-the-scenes folks that fuel the corruption and raise the money. Those people pay attention to things like this and they pay attention when someone who is almost 78 goes to prison.”
In the end, as he stood before Zagel, Cellini said he regretted the pain he has caused his family and told the judge he accepted full responsibility, without being more specific.
Prosecutors argued that Cellini’s crimes had earned him 6 ½ to 8 years in prison, but they conceded his health called for a sentence just below that.
Cellini was convicted last November by a federal jury of conspiracy to commit extortion and of aiding and abetting in the solicitation of a bribe but was acquitted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and attempted extortion. He had agreed to help try and squeeze Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg, who was seeking a contract to invest money for the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, for a campaign contribution for Blagojevich.
Prosecutors alleged that two of Blagojevich’s closest advisers, Antoin “Tony” Rezko and Christopher Kelly, targeted Rosenberg after learning he had not made contributions to the then-governor’s campaign even though his investment firm had a lucrative deal with TRS.
Cellini, working with corrupt TRS board member Stuart Levine, was to relay the message to Rosenberg in 2004 that a $220 million allocation from TRS had been bricked until the contribution was made.
Levine was a key witness in the trial, but the defense chipped away at his credibility. Prosecutors also had secretly recorded phone calls between Levine and Cellini to support the allegations that Cellini joined the conspiracy and agreed to deliver the message to Rosenberg.
The plan, however, went awry when Rosenberg blew up at the extortion attempt and threatened to go to the authorities. In the end, he kept his state business.
In arguing for probation, defense attorney Dan Webb downplayed Cellini’s criminal conduct in the conspiracy, saying it was limited to about a week during which he made a series of phone calls regarding the conspiracy. It was a small amount of time, considering Cellini’s long history of honest work in Springfield trying to broker deals among parties.
“He spent his entire life in politics as a peace-maker,” Webb said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter cast Cellini in an entirely different light, saying he did not “stumble” into a conspiracy but used his years as a Springfield power broker to get access to the TRS board and then used it as “leverage.”
“This defendant had spent years cultivating these relationships,” Porter said, later adding that Cellini was willing to “manipulate a critical institution.”
Cellini’s sentencing was delayed several times after he had health scares this summer. He was admitted twice to a Springfield hospital in June after suffering a heart attack and then suffered leg pains, which were caused by a blood clot.
Webb cited Cellini’s health when he asked Zagel for probation, saying he is at high risk for a blood clot and would require immediate care if it happened. Zagel said he wants to consider where Cellini can be placed that will have adequate medical facilities. Cellini’s date for reporting to prison is Jan. 4.
Porter told Zagel that Cellini’s health did warrant some leniency — a rare offering from the government. But Porter also said Cellini should not escape incarceration, that as difficult and “frightening” as this might be for Cellini and his family, the city and state needed the judge to send a message.
“If you violate the public trust, you are going to jail,” Porter said. “You are going to lose your liberty. This is a hard message, but it is a necessary message ... it does not matter if you are 27 or 77. It does not matter if you are rich or poor.”