A federal jury found William Cellini guilty Tuesday of joining a conspiracy to trade state contracts for campaign contributions for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The conviction is the latest in the long-running investigation into the Blagojevich administration, and it’s likely one of the last trials in “Operation Board Games,” marking the end of an era of political scandal in Illinois.
The jury found Cellini guilty of two of four counts, including:
Count 2 – Conspiracy to Extort – Cellini knowingly joined a conspiracy – He knew what Rezko and Kelly were about and he didn’t walk away and he knew they were trading state contracts for campaign contributions to Blagojevich.
Count 4 – Aiding and Abetting Bribery – Cellini knowingly aided and abetted an agent of a state agency (Levine in his role as a TRS trustee) in corruptly soliciting something of value in connection to official state action.
However, the jury found Cellini not guilty of two other counts, including:
Count 1 – Conspiracy to defraud – Defendant knowingly joined a conspiracy to use Levine’s role as a public official to defraud the people of Illinois, specifically the teachers who entrusted Levine to act with their best interests at heart.
Count 3 – Attempted Extortion – Cellini knowingly attempted, with Levine, to get money from Rosenberg. They threatened to hold back Rosenberg’s $220 million allocation believing that that would force Rosenberg to pay the bribe. This count also requires that the extortion could have potentially affected interstate commerce which it would have as the $220 million would have been invested in companies nationwide.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said the conviction sends a message to people trying to make backroom deals in Illinois.
"I think people ought to understand that as a result of 'Operation Board Games' we can not only convict the governor, but convict Ed Vrdolyac and convict Bill Cellini. It sends a message that federal law enforcement will work together as partners and investigate vigorously and will bring charges as appropriate," Fitzgerald said.
Cellini's attorney Dan Webb said the jurors threw out what he called the most serious charges against his client.
"The conspiracy to commit extortion which could very well be one act on his part, but whatever it was, it didn't even rise to the level of being attempted extortion. And I'm grateful for that result from the jury," Webb said.
Webb plans to file an appeal.
The investigation into the Blagojevich administration began because Stuart Levine was using his power as a trustee on the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board to try and squeeze bribes out of hospital administrators who had matters before the board. When Levine’s activity was reported, the FBI put a wiretap on his phones and Cellini had the misfortune of being in contact with Levine at that time.
Cellini was charged in connection to Levine’s work on another board, the Teacher’s Retirement System, the board that pays out teacher pensions and collects and invests the money. Cellini had won a contract to invest $220 million dollars for the fund, and prosecutors say, in an attempt to keep the contracts coming, he sought to curry favor with the new administration which meant doing business with Stuart Levine, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly.
From the tapes, it seems clear that Cellini knew what Rezko and Kelly were about. In a May 8, 2004 phone call Cellini tells Levine about a contractor he knows who does work for the state.
CELLINI: He's talkin' about these guys Tony and Chris because they are out uh, according to him...essentially hammerin' people for contracts uh, with with contracts for fundraising.
LEVINE: Mm hm.
CELLINI: And, and I gotta tell you I'm a nervous wreck over it myself.
LEVINE: You think they are?
CELLINI: Oh, oh...
LEVINE: Oh you know they are?
CELLINI: I know they are.
In that same call, Levine lays it out pretty clearly for Cellini that they’re trading contracts for contributions. Levine and Cellini are discussing Tom Rosenberg who is refusing to give a contribution even though he’s got $220 million hanging in the balance. Levine has put a hold on that business hoping to get a bribe but Rosenberg threatened to go to federal authorities.
“The way I think that this should be handled is that they shouldn’t take a political contribution from him and he shouldn’t get an allocation,” Levine said on the FBI recording.
Cellini counsels Levine to take a middle road. He says TRS should give Rosenberg a small allocation, something like $25 million because he won’t be able to publicly complain about that. On the tape Cellini laughs, and in her closing argument, Assistant United States Attorney Julie Porter told jurors that that was the sound of corruption.
Cellini does seem worried about the way Rezko and Kelly do business but prosecutors say he had a choice. He could have walked away but he didn’t want to lose his clout.
“It may be that there is nobody checking yet,” Cellini is heard saying on FBI recordings. “That there is nobody investigating what they’re doing yet, but there’s so much going on that there’s no question that it will happen because too many people are talking about how you get things done.”
Cellini tells Levine that he recently had to counsel Chris Kelly who was distraught about a newspaper article. Cellini says he told Kelly that the scrutiny would only increase.
“If somebody comes in with badges and flashes them at you and in the course of the conversation says do you know Bill Cellini, just know before they ask that question that they have already checked all your phone logs and they know that we have talked on the phone, that we have called each other 4,700 times so you can’t say, oh, I’ve heard of him, or I barely know him because they know that we’ve called, talked back and forth,” Cellini said.
Cellini is the last Blagojevich co-defendant to stand trial. Blagojevich staffers John Harris and Lon Monk both pleaded guilty and testified against the former governor. Chris Kelly committed suicide. Robert Blagojevich was tried but prosecutors dropped the charges after the jury was split on his guilt. No sentencing date has been set for the former governor.
Tony Rezko, the brains behind corruption in the Blagojevich administration, is scheduled to be sentenced November 22.