CHICAGO -- The defense attorney for Springfield businessman and Republican fundraiser William Cellini took aim at the heart of the corruption case against Cellini on Tuesday by getting the government’s key witness to admit Cellini never directly told him he had made an extortion threat. Follow Chris Wetterich's tweets from inside the courtroom @SJRthedome.

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Follow Chris Wetterich's tweets from Wednesday's courtroom action in the box above or @SJRthedome.


CHICAGO -- The defense attorney for Springfield businessman and Republican fundraiser William Cellini took aim at the heart of the corruption case against Cellini on Tuesday by getting the government’s key witness to admit Cellini never directly told him he had made an extortion threat.


Cellini attorney Dan Webb continued his cross-examination of Stuart Levine, a former member of the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System board who was involved in a plot to extort money from Hollywood producer and real estate investor Thomas Rosenberg in exchange for TRS business.


Tuesday's testimony centered on telephone calls between Levine and Cellini in May 2004 that were recorded by the government. Regarding three of the calls, Webb asked Levine whether Cellini told him he had delivered a message to Rosenberg that Rosenberg had to pony up $1.5 million to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's campaign fund in order for Rosenberg’s real estate investment firm, Capri Capital, to get $220 million in TRS funds to invest.


After an exhaustive recitation of other items discussed in the calls, Levine replied in each instance that Cellini had not directly told him that he had made the extortion threat to Rosenberg.


"Not those exact words," Levine said regarding a May 7 wiretapped call, before saying that his "impression" of the call was that Cellini had delivered the message.


"He's not asking what you understand," said U.S. Judge James Zagel. "He's asking if those exact words or their equivalent appear in the transcript."


"No," Levine replied.


It’s a key point in Cellini’s trial, which is in its third week. Levine is the only witness who claims to have direct knowledge of the plot to shake down Rosenberg.


Levine said a portion of the phone call in which Cellini tells him that Rosenberg was infuriated after Cellini told Rosenberg that Rosenberg’s TRS money was on hold shows that Cellini delivered the message. Levine also testified that he never told Cellini how much of a political contribution he and others involved in the scheme wanted from Rosenberg.


“I wanted to ensure I was the person Mr. Rosenberg had to talk to,” Levine explained.


Webb pointed to other messages that Cellini explicitly sent Rosenberg on behalf of Levine, including a request for an apology from Rosenberg for the way Rosenberg had treated Levine.


Cellini, wearing a charcoal suit and a blue tie, often sat at the defense table with his head cradled in one of his hands as testimony continued. One juror appeared to nod off during testimony.


Levine testified that 2004 was not the first time he had tried to extort money from Rosenberg. In 2001, he tried to get Rosenberg to pay $500,000, but, in Webb’s words, Rosenberg “stiffed” Levine.


Levine also said he believed Rosenberg lied about whether Capri Capital was for sale, which would have caused TRS funds flowing to it to stop because TRS rules required companies investing money for the $30 billion pension fund to disclose their ownership.


Earlier in the day, Levine told jurors that he and Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and Christopher Kelly decided to give Rosenberg a choice – pay a $2 million bribe to them or a $1.5 million campaign contribution to Blagojevich – if he wanted to invest money for TRS.


Levine testified that he didn’t care which way Rosenberg decided to go. If he paid the bribe, Levine would benefit financially. If he arranged a campaign contribution, Levine would earn brownie points with the Blagojevich insiders.


Early discussions of the plot did not include paying Cellini anything, Levine said. He testified later that he didn't want Cellini to know about the potential bribe.


Only Levine, Kelly, Rezko, Levine associate Bob Weinstein and former Chicago Ald. Edward Vrdolyak, who was to receive the bribe on their behalf, were to receive money, Levine said.


The conspirators pulled back after Rosenberg threatened to tell authorities of the plot, and Capri Capital received its $220 million investment.


Levine is expected to be on the stand again Wednesday.


Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.