An Illinois powerbroker who allegedly conspired to extort the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby" frantically backpedaled when the target of the plot threatened to blow the whistle, a star government witness testified Friday before the defense began grilling him.
Prosecutors started the day by playing FBI wiretaps in which William Cellini described to the witness -- who was a partner in the alleged plot -- how the furious producer told him he had no intention of caving in to demands he raise money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign.
"I mean, the more he talked the angrier he got," a worried-sounding Cellini told Stuart Levine, who was testifying for a third day Friday. A little later, Cellini talked about the trouble they could land themselves in, saying, "I gotta tell, you I'm a nervous wreck about it myself."
The normally confident Cellini sounded alarmed at times on the May 8, 2004, recording -- his voice falling to a hush when Levine suggested they might still follow up on a threat to withhold $220 million in state pension funds they controlled from Thomas Rosenberg's investment company unless he paid up.
"We don't want to play chicken with him," a skeptical Cellini responded.
Prosecutors say the extortion plan called for Cellini to gently broach with Rosenberg the idea of making a donation. Levine, a board member of the $30 billion Teachers' Retirement System that oversaw the pensions, was supposed to tighten the screws in a later call, where he would tell Rosenberg to make a $1.5 million donation or lose the pension funds.
Cellini, 76, has denied any wrongdoing. His is the last in a series of trials stemming from a nearly decade-long federal investigation of Blagojevich, who was convicted on multiple corruption counts earlier this year and is awaiting sentencing.
Listening to his voice over courtroom speakers, Cellini held his chin in his hand and kept his eyes fixed on a written transcript of the wiretaps. Jurors also had transcripts on their laps, and some marked sections as the wiretaps were played.
Later Friday, the defense got their first shot at tearing down Levine's credibility.
Attorney Dan Webb pressed a visibly anxious Levine about a litany of crimes he has confessed to over recent years, including defrauding several charities of millions of dollars.
The admitted drug user and convicted money launderer often appeared disoriented, pausing for 10 seconds or more as the courtroom grew quiet -- Levine frozen still, his mouth agape.
"Do you know the number of actual organizations that placed trust in you -- how many did you turn around and cheat?" the former federal prosecutor asked Levine.
After a long pause, Levine eventually answered quietly, "Somewhere in the neighborhood of five."
"Just five?" Webb asked sarcastically as he moved on to another question.
Webb, who has said he may have four days-worth of questions for Levine, only had an hour Friday and didn't touch on Levine's decades using cocaine, ecstasy and other illegal drugs -- and whether that may have damaged his memory.
At the start of the day, with jurors out of the room, Webb told the judge prosecutors seemed to be purposefully and unfairly trying to taint Cellini by merely associating him with someone as unsavory as Levine.
Prosecutors have gone out of their way to describe the men as close.
While answering questions for prosecutors early Friday, Levine said Cellini's fear in early May, 2004, was about the lack of caution shown by two other conspirators: Blagojevich insiders Chris Kelly and Tony Rezko, the most powerful figure in the governor's inner circle.
In describing the call with Rosenberg to Levine, Cellini said the executive exploded while talking about Kelly and Rezko, claiming it was widely known they were squeezing businessmen for campaign cash in exchange for state contracts.
"He said, `I don't have a problem, they have a real problem," Rosenberg said, according to Cellini. "`I'll take them down."
Levine never made a call to Rosenberg making the specific demand for $1.5 million. And by the end of May, even though Rosenberg didn't make the contribution, the pension system finally approved the $220 million to his investment company.
In the early May call with Levine, Cellini also raised the prospect of a federal investigation of Kelly and Rezko -- who allegedly helped Cellini profit himself from state decisions.
"It may be that nobody's investigating anything they are doing yet," Cellini told Levine. "But there's so much going on that (there is) no question that it will happen."
Cellini even talked about seeing Kelly recently, describing him as frantic that newspapers had written about the sway he and Rezko seemed to hold over Blagojevich and how that could lead to an investigation.
Cellini said he advised Kelly not to deny knowing him if FBI agents ever "come in with badges and flash them at you" because the agents will already have checked phone records.
But when Levine asked Cellini if he was willing to cut the presumably lucrative ties with the two, a serious Cellini paused.
"Phew," he finally said in a hush, "You know neither one of us wanna do that."