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CHICAGO -- The victim of an alleged extortion plot involving Springfield businessman and Republican fundraiser William Cellini said Wednesday he did not believe Cellini was part of the scheme when it was occurring in 2004.

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CHICAGO -- The victim of an alleged extortion plot involving Springfield businessman and Republican fundraiser William Cellini said Wednesday he did not believe Cellini was part of the scheme when it was occurring in 2004.


“I never thought that Bill was trying to get money from me,” said Thomas Rosenberg, a former real estate investor and current Hollywood producer who won an Academy Award for the film “Million Dollar Baby.”


Cellini defense attorney Terry Gillespie asked questions about six phone calls between Cellini and Rosenberg in May 2004. The jury was not present for the questioning, which served to tell lawyers for each side and the judge what Rosenberg, a prosecution witness, would say if he was asked such questions in front of jurors.


Cellini is charged with conspiring with former Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System board member Stuart Levine and former Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and the late Christopher Kelly to extort a campaign contribution from Rosenberg in order for Rosenberg’s real estate investment firm, Capri Capital, to receive $220 million in TRS funds to invest.


Rosenberg said his early conversations with Cellini left him with the impression that Cellini was “trying to defuse the situation.”


“I thought Bill was basically trying to clean it up,” Rosenberg said. “My efforts are to convey to Bill that he should convey to them that I’m not going to let this happen … that I’ll kick the (expletive) out of them.”


Six phone calls


But by the sixth phone call, when Cellini informed Rosenberg that Capri would get its money, Rosenberg said he was puzzled why Rezko and Kelly seemed to be using his friend Cellini and another friend, lawyer and real estate developer Allison Davis, as go-betweens.


“What that meant was that he (Cellini) allowed it to go forward or that Rezko and Kelly allowed him to allow it to go forward,” Rosenberg said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why did those two choose Allison and Bill?’ But I don’t know.”


However, jurors may never hear those statements. Attorneys for both the defense and prosecution said after the questioning that they were not interested in having Rosenberg tell the jury his opinions of Cellini’s actions.


Rosenberg, who has raised political contributions for Democrats going back to President Jimmy Carter, did testify briefly in front of jurors on Tuesday. He discussed his relationships with Cellini and Levine, whom he has known for decades, and Rezko and Kelly, each of whom he met once.


He described himself as a business friend of Cellini’s and said the two saw each other three to five times a year.


Rosenberg also described how Levine had tried to extort money from him previously, adding that he thought Levine was less interested in money and more interested in trying to corrupt and control him.


The extent of his contact with Rezko and Kelly was shaking their hands, Rosenberg said. He developed negative opinions of both after talking with friends and reading news stories about them.


Rosenberg said he met Kelly at a 2003 Chicago Cubs playoff game Rosenberg attended with actor Gary Sinise, “during the playoffs that were very tough for Cubs fans.”


Mistrial sought


Meanwhile, Cellini’s lead lawyer, Dan Webb, asked for a mistrial after U.S. Judge James Zagel refused to allow Webb to question Levine about statements Levine made in the Rezko trial.


Federal prosecutors contend Cellini relayed to Rosenberg that he would be expected to make a campaign contribution in order to get TRS funds to invest.


Webb said he believed Levine had contradicted himself in Cellini's trial compared with testimony Levine gave in Rezko's trial. Webb said Levine told the jury in Rezko's trial that no one, including Cellini, directly asked Rosenberg for a $1.5 million political contribution to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in May 2004, when the conspiracy was being hatched.


Prosecutors said whether Rosenberg was directly asked for the money isn't the point. They contend Cellini sent a message that a contribution would be expected without directly asking for one.


"They're trying to blur the message sent," said assistant U.S. attorney Christopher Niewoehner. "Cellini's job was to notify him (Rosenberg) he was going to be asked."


Zagel ruled against Webb, who then said Levine's testimony in the Rezko trial was so important to the Cellini defense that Webb had to ask for a mistrial. Zagel did not immediately address the request, but allowed the trial to continue.


"Their (the prosecution's) theory is that Cellini's purpose was to deliver ... a message ... that I would characterize as a 'that day will come' message," Zagel said. "You can argue about whether he delivered the 'that day will come' message."


Webb was allowed to ask Levine about statements he made to FBI investigators in 2006. According to Webb, the FBI agents' notes say Levine told them he never told Cellini about his intention to extort either the $1.5 million campaign contribution or a $2 million bribe to be shared by Levine, Rezko and Kelly.


"I don't recall that," Levine said when asked about the FBI agents' report.


 


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