CHICAGO – Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Springfield businessman and GOP fundraiser William Cellini told jurors in his corruption trial the same thing on Tuesday: Listen to the tapes and read the transcripts of Cellini’s recorded phone calls. Follow Chris Wetterich's tweets from the trial @SJRthedome.

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Follow reporter Chris Wetterich tweets from court @SJRthedome or in the box above.


CHICAGO – Federal prosecutors and attorneys for Springfield businessman and GOP fundraiser William Cellini told jurors in his corruption trial the same thing on Tuesday: Listen to the tapes and read the transcripts of Cellini’s recorded phone calls.


In closing arguments, prosecutors said jurors will hear that Cellini is at the center of a plot by Blagojevich administration political insiders to extort a man who believed Cellini was his friend.


Cellini defense attorney Dan Webb said they will see Cellini as being in the middle – the “ham in a ham sandwich” -- who was a mere messenger between two feuding men, one of whom was a lifetime criminal and the other someone who might have cooperated with shady dealings in the past.


Cellini, 76, is charged with conspiring with former Teachers’ Retirement System board member Stuart Levine and former Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and the late Christopher Kelly to extort a $1.5 million campaign contribution or $2 million bribe from Hollywood producer and real estate investor Thomas Rosenberg.


The threat was that unless Rosenberg paid the bribe, his real estate investment firm, Capri Capital, would not receive $220 million in TRS funds to invest, prosecutors say. Cellini’s alleged role was to tell Rosenberg that he was expected to contribute to Blagojevich. Cellini denies wrongdoing.


 


Laughing in phone calls


Assistant U.S. Attorney Julie Porter played several phone calls for jurors in which Cellini is heard laughing with Levine. In one, both laugh after Levine remarks that it’s fine with him if Rosenberg doesn’t pay and loses his TRS business.


“That is what corruption sounds like,” Porter said as Cellini stared at her, blinking and taking notes. “The defendant was not a protector, not a helper. … Bill Cellini was an extorter.”


Webb staked his case on jurors listening to the tapes and finding nothing there.


In a series of calls recorded by the FBI between Levine and Cellini starting on May 7, 2004 – after Cellini allegedly delivered the message to Rosenberg that Rosenberg had to pay or else – Cellini talks to Levine, but does not tell him that he gave Rosenberg the message, Webb said.


“I want you to read every page of this transcript,” Webb told jurors. “Cellini does not pass on the extortion message. It’s not there.”


Moreover, of all the calls the government recorded between Levine and Cellini, it did not record one on May 2 in which Levine allegedly told Cellini that Cellini was to deliver the extortion threat to Rosenberg, Webb said.


“We have no tape recording,” Webb said. “We have nothing but Levine’s testimony.”


Prosecutor: Cellini knew


Prosecutors said that whether Cellini explicitly told Rosenberg he had to pay is irrelevant.


Assistant U.S. attorney Christopher Niewoehner used an analogy in which a police officer who stops a motorist holds up a ticket and tells the driver that if he gets his wallet out, maybe the ticket can be torn up. The cop doesn’t have to ask for money to be guilty of extortion.


“Mr. Webb has spent the last three hours talking about a case that’s not charged,” said Niewoehner, who occasionally pointed at Cellini and referred to him under his alleged TRS nickname – “The Pope.” “Of course he didn’t say it that way. He didn’t need to.”


Niewoehner pointed to a May 10, 2004, taped conversation between Levine and Cellini after Rosenberg had rejected the alleged extortion scheme and threatened to call law enforcement to show  Cellini knew about the scheme.


“Nobody’s asked him for anything,” Levine told Cellini on the recordings.


“No, but he’s making his assumptions,” Cellini responded.


“He knows what he’s done,” Niewoehner said of Cellini.


But Webb said that Levine’s repeated remarks in that same conversation – that nobody had asked Rosenberg for anything – backs up Cellini’s assertion that he never delivered an extortion threat to Rosenberg.


“The government’s got a problem with the May 10 tapes,” Webb said.


Webb said Cellini wasn’t in meetings in which the conspiracy was hatched, didn’t know what took place during them and would never have received any money as a result of the conspiracy. In fact, Cellini didn’t even know Levine, Kelly and Rezko were conspiring to extort Rosenberg, Webb said.


‘Whack job’


Webb spent extensive time assailing Levine’s credibility as a witness, calling him a “whack job.” Levine contradicted himself at times, Webb said, noting his 30 years of drug use and his attempts to extort bribes and steal, including from the children, -- “one of whom is deaf” -- of his deceased cousin.


Then Webb turned to Rosenberg, from whom Levine had tried to extort a $500,000 payment in 2001. Prosecutors gave Rosenberg immunity for his testimony.


Webb noted that Levine and Rosenberg disagreed about the 2001 events. Levine said Rosenberg came to him in 2001 seeking a TRS allocation and brought up the bribe himself. Rosenberg said he never asked for Levine’s help and that Levine approached him about a bribe.


“He knows he’s been involved in these discussions with Levine over the years about illegal payments,” Webb said of Rosenberg’s immunity agreement. “That’s a key issue in this case – two conflicting statements from two government witnesses. How can Rosenberg be an extortion victim when he offered to pay a bribe?”


In his rebuttal of Webb’s closing argument, Niewoehner showed the jury a graphic. Photos of the heads of all of the witnesses that testified were placed in a circle surrounding a picture of a tape recorder in the center.


“They don’t forget,” Niewoehner said of the tapes. “They don’t use drugs. They don’t have a deal with a government.”


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