Prosecutors started playing secret FBI recordings to jurors Thursday as the government got into the crux of the evidence they say proves a long-time Illinois powerbroker conspired to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby" by using his and his associates' control over a multibillion-dollar teachers' pension fund.
Jurors listened to a May 7, 2004, recording in which businessman William Cellini could be heard describing how he called Hollywood producer Thomas Rosenberg earlier that day. It's a call prosecutors say was a vital to the conspiracy to extort the executive for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich by threatening to withhold $220 in pension funds from Rosenberg's investment firm.
In the recorded conversation with one of his cohorts, Stuart Levine, a calm-sounding Cellini says he told the producer that Blagojevich insiders Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly had gotten wind that Rosenberg's investment company had already landed around $1 billion worth of pension funds, even though Rosenberg hadn't contributed to Blagojevich's campaign.
"I said, `Well . . . things have been put on hold," Cellini said, apparently referring to the $220 million in new funds Rosenberg's company had hoped to receive. Cellini said he went on to tell Rosenberg that Rezko -- one of the most powerful figures in Blagojevich's inner circle -- was "flabbergasted" Rosenberg had received so much state business without reciprocal campaign contributions.
While Cellini, now 76, apparently feigned outrage in his conversation with Rosenberg at Rezko's demand for a contribution, prosecutors contended he was actually in on the squeeze along with Levine, Rezko and another Blagojevich insider, Chris Kelly.
The conspirators all agreed beforehand that Cellini would call Rosenberg to lay the groundwork for a follow-up later call where Levine would turn the screws, Levine testified during a second day on the stand Thursday. Asked if Cellini had delivered the message to the executive, Levine answered flatly, "yes."
Levine, who sat on the board of the $30 billion Teachers' Retirement System that controlled the pension money, earlier described how he, Cellini and others pulled strings behind the scenes to ensure people beholden to them would also sit on the board.
Cellini's trial is the last in a series that grew out of a federal investigation of Blagojevich, whose own corruption trial earlier this year also featured secret recordings as evidence.
On the tapes, Cellini, a Republican from Springfield, sounds business-like and meticulous. His tone sharply contrasts Blagojevich, who was heard on recordings rambling and frequently peppering his sentences with profanities.
Cellini, once known as the King of Clout for the influence he once wielded in the corridors Illinois power, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and consistently denied wrongdoing. His attorneys have said Cellini had no idea that others connected to the teachers fund meant to extort Rosenberg and that Cellini was actually try to help the producer.
Earlier in the day, the government sought to establish how close Cellini was to Levine and Rezko, who was described at his own trial in 2008 as the one pulling the strings in Blagojevich's administration.
Levine testified that he, Rezko and Cellini -- along with their wives -- flew together on a private jet to attend a White House Christmas party when George W. Bush was president.
On one call played Thursday, an attorney for the system says about the pension system's director, "He somehow thinks he's in charge," and Levine bursts out laughing.
The jovial Levine -- then a multimillionaire -- who is heard on wiretaps in 2004 jars with the deferential, soft-spoken man on the witness stand this week. Levine, who is now 65 and works in sales at a shopping mall, appears uncomfortable as he responds to prosecutors questions, often with `yes' or `no' answers.
The government's case hinges on Levine, who is expected to testify for several more days.
On Thursday, prosecutors continued to air Levine's checkered past in meticulous detail, apparently hoping they can reduce the damage to his credibility by bringing it up themselves.
Levine went down a long list of schemes he hatched to receive kickbacks and bribes when he sat on several state boards, many of which he admitted to but was never charged with. As he did the day before, Levine also addressed his rampant drug use over more than 30 years, which he told jurors he stopped the day the FBI arrived at his home in a leafy Chicago suburb to say he was the target of an investigation.
The prosecution tried to get ahead of another claim defense attorneys are likely to make once they begin cross-examining Levine, possibly as soon as Friday: That his drug use may have damaged his brain.
"Do you know if your use of drugs has effected your memory?" prosecutor Chris Niewoehner asked.
Levine answered in his characteristic short, quite clip of an answer: "It's possible," he said.
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