The most influential Illinoisan you don't know: Bill Cellini

The Blagojevich co-defendant is well known in Springfield, but not elsewhere.

October 3, 2011

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Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday morning in the trial of William Cellini. He's the fifth and final co-defendant of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to go on trial. Prosecutors say he was part of a conspiracy that traded campaign contributions for the governor in exchange for state contracts and business. He's not exactly a household name in Chicago, but the Springfield native is a big deal in his hometown. How big?

At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, there's a painting that depicts the night in 1864 when Lincoln won his second term as president.  The townspeople in the room are celebrating and Lincoln is sitting in a chair, presumably going over election returns. Standing over the president and seeming to advise him is Bill Cellini.

The museum won't comment on whether it's actually Cellini in the painting, but Gene Callahan has been friends with Cellini since 1959 and remembers seeing his friend's likeness on the museum wall.  "The tour guide even pointed that out to me because the tour guide knew we were friends with Bill's," says Callahan.

Bill Cellini is in his late 70s and has been a political insider for a long time, though not all the way back to Lincoln.  But the painting is emblematic on so many levels because Cellini has had the ear of the state's top politicians for four decades, and he's always kept himself in the background.  He never needed to be the one winning elections, just the one whispering in the ear of the winner on election night.

"Oh, he's very well known in Springfield.  I would say there's no one in Springfield better known than Bill Cellini," says Callahan.

Callahan was a staffer for Paul Simon when he was lieutenant governor and for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon.  He says Cellini, a Republican, had good relationships with politicians of both parties. "He's meticulous.  When you have a meeting with him he takes notes on what to follow up on.  He's outstanding on follow through.  He returns his phone calls. He likes to joke. He likes the arts. He's a very fine musician, he's a piano player and very good.  He's a fun guy!  You know, he's been a good citizen for our town," says Callahan.

Cellini held local political office in Springfield early in his career, and by his mid-30s he was appointed by Gov. Richard Ogilvie to run the state's Department of Transportation and its $1.5 billion budget. With that intimate knowledge of government, he turned his focus to business, but he always kept a hand in politics.

Bernie Schoenburg is the political columnist for the State Journal Register in Springfield, and he says Cellini has been the de facto head of the Sangamon County Republicans for a long time, but he never took the top spot; he preferred the less high-profile, though powerful job, of treasurer.

"He's certainly not a big deal in the typical politician way because you won't see him giving a speech  In fact, I don't think I've ever seen him give a speech. He's not the kind of person who needs that kind of adoration or attention from the public. But he's been a big influence in the background for many years," says Schoenburg.

Schoenburg says Cellini has been able to turn his political connections into business deals, getting the first casino license from the state, leasing out buildings to the state, developing land with federal and state money and building roads for the state.

In the 1990s, the Chicago Sun-Times estimated Cellini was worth $50 million.

Rich Miller is another political reporter in Springfield.  He publishes a newsletter called Capitol Fax and has been observing the political scene in Springfield for a couple decades. He talks about Cellini with a sense of wonder and amazement.  Miller says, "Usually somebody has, like, one idea in life, okay, that works and then every other idea they have doesn't work, but he kept coming up with new ideas all the time and they always worked, but it was based on a common theme. Government makes people money, certain people money so you be one of those certain people all the time."

Miller says government doesn't build stuff, it hires companies to do that, which means there's always money to be made.  And that's what Cellini did.  "He worked harder than anybody. He was smarter than anybody. He looked around harder than anybody at how to make money under every cover to find a possible way to make money in state government, he scoured it from top to bottom and he did!" says Miller. He says there were never allegations that Cellini did anything illegal until these charges related to the long-running pay to play scandal under Blagojevich.

Prosecutors say with the change from Republican to Democratic administrations Cellini worried that he'd lose his clout and therefore his ability to make money.  And they say, to curry favor with the Blagojevich administration, Cellini joined a conspiracy with Blagojevich's top fundraisers Stuart Levine, Tony Rezko and the late Chris Kelly, to force business people to give campaign contributions to the governor if they wanted contracts with the state.

Cellini's defense attorney Dan Webb says Cellini wasn't part of their crew. "I think the evidence at trial will establish that whatever Levine, Rezko and Kelly discussed among the three of them, it's very clear that Cellini was not part of those discussions."

Webb is a partner at Winston and Strawn, the law firm where former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson is also a partner.  It's the same firm that represented Gov. George Ryan.  Webb wouldn't let Cellini talk to us for this story, but that's not terribly surprising, as Cellini has traditionally shunned the media - remember, he likes to be in the background.

Webb is already fighting against the idea that Cellini must be dirty just because he's a savvy political insider.  It's an argument he'll likely make to the jury.  "Bill Cellini learned what it's like to work hard. He is smart.  He made some good investments and he's been successful in the business world, but that's hardly a crime," says Webb.

Gene Callahan, Cellini's friend since 1959, he has a hard time believing Cellini is guilty.  "He was honest in every dealing I ever had with him without exception.  The problem is here, when you lie down with dogs with fleas, you can get fleas and the people that were lying down with Blagojevich were suspect of getting fleas," says Callahan.

Callahan says he doesn't know the law and doesn't know what the jury will do, but he says he hopes his friend is not guilty of the crimes he's accused of.

Cellini's trial starts Monday with jury selection and and is expected to take two to three weeks.  Opening arguments could start Tuesday morning.