Illinois Public Media News
A jury has been impaneled in Chicago at the last trial stemming from a federal investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
A judge seated 12 jurors Wednesday, the third day of millionaire William Cellini's trial. The next step will be opening statements. Prosecutors say the 76-year-old conspired to shake down the producer of "Million Dollar Baby'' for a campaign donation to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Cellini denies the charges.
The Springfield Republican once called the King of Clout for the influence he wielded in the corridors of power in both Repubican and Democratic administrations, like Blagojevich's.
The judge vetted more than 50 would-be jurors over three days. He dismissed a few who said they believed lobbyists and political fundraisers undermined the political system.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume today in federal court in the trial of William Cellini, after a slow start on Monday.
Judge James Zagel questioned only eight potential jurors Monday afternoon. One said she had a negative view of campaign fundraising, but another thought it was good to give contributions. Zagel told both of them that there is legal fundraising and there is illegal fundraising, and he asked if they could set aside their biases about fundraising and judge the case on the law. Both women agreed they could.
Cellini is the final co-defendant of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to go on trial. Cellini is accused of joining a conspiracy to raise money for Blagojevich by threatening people that they'd lose their business contracts with the state unless they paid up.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday 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.
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," Callahan said.
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," Callahan said. "I would say there's no one in Springfield better known than Bill Cellini."
Callahan was a staffer for Paul Simon when he was lieutenant governor and for U.S. Sen. Alan Dixon. He said Cellini, a Republican, had good relationships with politicians of both parties.
"He's meticulous," Callahan said. "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."
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 said 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," Schoenburg said. "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."
Schoenburg said 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.
"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," Miller said. "Government makes people money, certain people money so you be one of those certain people all the time."
Miller said government doesn't build stuff, it hires companies to do that, which means there's always money to be made. That's what he said 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! 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 said 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 said.
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 comment for this story.
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," Webb said. "He is smart. He made some good investments and he's been successful in the business world, but that's hardly a crime."
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," Callahan said "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."
Callahan said he doesn't know the law and doesn't know what the jury will do, but he said he hopes his friend is not guilty of the crimes for which he is accused.
Cellini's trial starts Monday with jury selection and and is expected to take two to three weeks. Opening arguments could start Tuesday morning.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
Champaign Police are boosting patrols around school zones after getting reports of three more attempted child abductions, bring the total to 8 being investigated this week alone.
White male suspects are sought in each case of these latest reports. One occurred about 6 p.m. Tuesday on the city's north side, at the corner of Bradley Avenue and Bloomington Road. A 13-year old old girld says two men in a red truck if she wanted a ride. On Wednesday afternoon around 2 p.m., a man corner of Hollycrest and William reportedly offered a nine-year-old boy some candy. That suspect is described tall and skinny with long shoulder length hair.
And Friday morning about 8:15 on the Pine Street near Elm, a 10-year-old boy says a male suspect asked he wanted a ride. That man is described as in his 40's with long blond hair and a blonde/brown beard. He was driving an older model red truck with a silver bumper with dents on the passenger side.
The Champaign Police Department is working with the Champaign County Sheriff's Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Service, and the Illinois State Police.
A Champaign Police official says they're working to determine if any links exist between a series of attempted child abductions in the last several days.
Deputy Chief Troy Daniels says there doesn't appear to be anything connecting the suspects. His department has contacted the FBI's behavioral unit to analyze the 5 attempted abductions that have occurred since September 20th. Four have taken place in Champaign, and fifth was in the Dobbins Downs neighborhood on the edge of the city.
The most recent report came from northeast Champaign Wednesday, where the mother of an 11-year old said a man in a minivan approached the girl at a bus stop, and left once the parent got his attention. A separate incident on the west side Monday, but reported Wedesday, involved an 11-year old boy who was approached by a male driver who offered him a ride, and the child ran away.
Black males with separate descriptions and vehicles are sought in each of those cases, and white males are being sought for two other incidents this week. Daniels says it's not unheard of to have suspects start such behavior at the same time, and they're completely unrelated.
"So that's a possibility, and it's also possible that as more publicity occurs, we look at each case very carefully and we scrutinize the information that's been being given to us to make sure it's accurate and true," said Daniels. "We do believe that we have cause for concern on these cases and we have a number of people that are working them."
Daniels says anyone who might see suspicious activity that could be related to the recent reports is encouraged to Champaign Police or Crimestoppers.
Authorities have identified the body found north of Champaign Monday morning as a Danville woman.
The Champaign County Sheriff and Coroner's office say 43-year old Angelica Vasquez had been reported missing by her husband. Her body was discovered Tuesday morning along Rising Road, just north of Bradley Avenue.
Authorities used fingerprints to identify the body, and are treating the case as a homicide investigation. Sheriff Dan Walsh says his office is not releasing any details on the cause of death.
The Champaign County Sheriff and Danville Police Department are handling the investigation.
The Illinois Department of Corrections says the planned closure of a central Illinois prison could mean 1,500 inmates would be housed in prison gyms.
The (Springfield) State Journal-Register (http://bit.ly/nPzzfO) reports the department detailed the scenario involving the medium-security Logan Correctional Center near Lincoln in a required report to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. The closure also could mean crowding-related lawsuits.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has called the closure unavoidable given budget cuts by lawmakers. The union representing many of the affected prison workers says the move could endanger corrections workers and inmates.
Meanwhile, the Belleville News-Democrat (http://bit.ly/q62Vqk ) reports plans to close a maximum-security state mental-health center in Chester could require hundreds of thousands of dollars in upgrades at sites elsewhere to accommodate patients.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed lawsuits Tuesday against companies she says are running fraudulent mortgage rescue schemes.
Some Chicago area companies and licensed attorneys allegedly charged consumers as much as $375,000 to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. But Madigan said the companies took the money and never helped the consumers.
She said the 2006 Mortgage Rescue Fraud Act prevents companies from charging upfront fees, but lawyers are able to accept advance payment.
"The new twist on this scam is that these predators are really using lawyers as a front so that they can conceivably get around the law and collect the upfront money," Madigan said.
The Attorney General's office has filed suit against four companies accused of using this scam. The filing asks the court to shut down the businesses and get restitution for at least 76 consumers.
Madigan said homeowners should not have to pay to get help with their mortgage, and that HUD certified counselors are available for free. Homeowners can contact the Attorney General's Homeowner Helpline at (866) 544-7151.
Community leaders and activists have started putting together a list of qualities they want in a new Champaign police chief.
Many of the ideas have already been discussed, but some of the 35 who attended a forum put together by Champaign's Community and Police Partnership (CCAPP) Monday night say they're on the same page. Words like public trust, communication, and integrity were repeated throughout the 1-hour event. City leaders and activists spent most of last night's forum in those small groups answering two questions: What are the top 5 challenges facing Champaign's next police chief, and what four skills should that person possess?
Reverend Jerome Chambers, a former Champaign County NAACP president, says he wants someone who has the people skills to generate a dialogue with the community.
"Be as transparent with them as possible, yet - in leading, have the kind of skill set that says: 'I hear you, because you are important. And how we're going to approach this is not to be stereotypical," said Chambers.
Craig Williams says the next chief shouldn't shy away from changing the ranks within the department.
"If somebody's not doing their job, or if you get so many complaints on an officer, don't be afraid to remove that officer of discipline that officer," he said. "In any organization, discipline is very necessary."
City council member Will Kyles says it's important the city set the new chief up for success, recognizing that the person won't be a savior when he first or she first takes office.
Top challenges for the successor to retiring Chief R.T. Finney were also identified. They include dealing with the increase in youth violence (ages 14-25), further healing in the wake of the 2009 police shooting of teen Kiwane Carrington, and social networking.
The recommendations of the panels will be passed on to a search committee for new chief, as well as the city manager's office. Finney will step down on January 20th.
A federal judge has delayed the sentencing date for ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
A notice posted electronically Monday at the U.S. District Court in Chicago says simply that Blagojevich's Oct. 6 sentencing date has been "stricken until further order by the court.'' It doesn't offer a reason for the delay.
There had been speculation that the impeached governor's sentencing could be pushed back because of a scheduling conflict with another trial.
The trial of a one-time fundraiser for Blagojevich, William Cellini, is set to start on Oct. 3. U.S. District Judge James Zagel is the judge in both cases. A new date wasn't immediately announced.
Blagojevich's attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, says a federal judge is likely to set the convicted former governor's new sentencing date for late October or early November. He says Judge James Zagel did put off the sentencing because it conflicted Cellini's trial.
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