Thursday, October 30, 2008

Operation Board Game snags another piece

The U.S. attorney’s office in Northern Illinois is advancing its way around Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s inner circle, and Thursday’s indictment of GOP political bigwig William Cellini could be just another attempt to recruit one more person to testify against the governor, says Kent Redfield, political scientist with the University of Illinois at Springfield.

U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicted Cellini today on four charges of federal corruption. The 21-page indictment spells out a classic pay-to-play scheme of trading political campaign cash for state business. But Cellini’s attorney, Dan Webb of Winston & Strawn in Chicago, already combats the charges as “unfair and unjust” and based on shaky evidence.

The feds allege that Cellini was one of many people who conspired to rig state boards to hire investment firms that would, among other financial benefits, donate to the political campaign of Public Official A, previously identified as Blagojevich. The scheme allegedly happened between spring 2003 and summer 2005. Other conspirators already charged include Blagojevich insider Tony Rezko, former state board member Stuart Levine, attorneys Joseph Cari and Steven Loren and construction contractor Jacob Kiferbaum. Cellini’s indictment lists two more: Co-Conspirator A and a Teachers Retirement System Staffer A, yet to officially be identified. Co-Conspirator A is widely thought to be Christopher Kelly, who already was indicted on separate charges of tax fraud.

Cellini’s indictment alleges that he participated in a scheme to pressure Chicago businessman Thomas Rosenberg to give money to Blagojevich’s political campaign. The alleged ultimatum was that Rosenberg’s company, Capri Capital, had to raise money or donate to Blagojevich’s political fund to get a $220 million business deal with the Teachers’ Retirement System. The system oversees and handles investments for public pensions of teachers and administrators outside of Chicago. Private investment firms handle TRS assets. Through a statement, TRS administrators declined to comment but said the staff will “continue to uphold their fiduciary duty to our participants.”

According to Cellini’s indictment, the schemers decided it was too risky to continue pressuring Rosenberg when he threatened to go to authorities. But after that, Cellini, Rezko and others “discussed the possibility of removing the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in an effort to stop any investigations into the co-conspirators and others,” according to the indictment.

Webb’s statement describes Cellini as “completely innocent of these charges, and he will fight this case because he has done absolutely nothing wrong.” It highlights the point that while a grand jury found Rezko guilty of 16 counts of corruption, they found him not guilty on one of the most serious charges of attempted extortion, relating to the charges involving Rosenberg. It states that Rosenberg testified in Rezko’s trial that “Bill Cellini never asked him for any money and that Rosenberg never paid any money to Cellini or anyone else.”

Redfield says if the assumption is that the U.S. attorney’s ultimate goal is to get all the way to Blagojevich, indicting Cellini makes sense. But there's no guarantee it'll work.

“At this point, Cellini thinks that this is not a slam dunk,” says Redfield. “And he’s willing to be indicted rather than to cooperate.”

And if the federal grand jury agrees with prosecutors’ assessment of Cellini’s involvement in the scheme, why would a successful, wealthy political insider at all levels of government work to secure funds on behalf of Blagojevich, a Democratic governor? Redfield says it’s all about power. “I don’t think it was so much about fighting for the governor as it was about power in the board and playing the game. He was as mover and shaker when [Jim] Thompson, [Jim] Edgar and [George] Ryan were governors. That’s what he knows and what he does … Power is addictive.”

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