Prosecutors portray Cellini as puppet master

October 6, 2011

Robert Wildeboer and AP Wires

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William Cellini (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

Updated 10/6/11 at 12:18 p.m.

A defense attorney at Springfield powerbroker William Cellini's corruption trial says his client was never friends with Rod Blagojevich and didn't meet with the former governor .

Defense attorney Dan Webb tried to distance Cellini from Blagojevich on Thursday as he finished his opening statement.

Cellini is accused of conspiring to shake down the producer of the movie "Million Dollar Baby" for a campaign contribution.

Prosecutors called Keith Bozarth as their first witness. He was the one-time head of a state retirement system.

He's expected to testify about Cellini's influence at the Illinois Teachers Retirement System. The agency manages billions of dollars in teachers' pensions.

Prosecutors say Cellini plotted to withhold TRS funds from the producer's investment firm unless he contributed to Blagojevich's campaign.

Cellini denies that.

In his opening statement for the prosecution on Wednesday, Greg Deis told jurors that Cellini wasn't on the board of the Teachers Retirement System and yet he controlled how the agency invested some of its $30 billion in assets.

Deis says Cellini got people jobs with TRS and got them appointments, and they did what he told them to do. He says that allowed Cellini to steer state contracts not to the most qualified businesses, but to those willing to give campaign contributions to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Cellini has long been influential behind the scenes in Illinois politics, but defense attorney Dan Webb said others hatched the plot - not his client.  And he told jurors that whatever they think about fundraising, lobbying and politics, they need to judge this case on the facts.