Pope on a rope: He’s named in Blago indictment


UPDATE: On Nov. 1, 2011, 76-year-old Bill Cellini was found guilty of conspiracy and bribery. Read the Chicago Tribune’s story. http://trib.in/sT5IfA

For more than three decades, Springfield’s Bill Cellini pulled the strings of Illinois government, becoming arguably one of the most influential operatives in a state with a well-earned reputation for hardball politics.

Until last year, when he was indicted for extortion and conspiracy, Cellini has been virtually untouchable, especially in the capital city, where his cronies and allies occupy key jobs in city and county government — and the local press has treated him with kid gloves.

“Well-known Republican fundraiser” is how he was described in a recent story in his hometown daily. Some insiders, however, referred to him as “the pope.”

Today (April 2), however, Cellini was one of six individuals, including former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, named in a 19-count indictment handed up by a federal grand jury in Chicago.

The allegations in the indictment give only a glimpse of Cellini’s role in Illinois. A broader picture of his influence was drawn in a civil lawsuit, filed in federal court in Springfield at the end of 2006, by a state employee who said he was unjustly passed over for a job. John Gnutek’s complaint, which also named Blagojevich associate Alonzo “Lon” Monk as a defendant, received perfunctory coverage when it was first filed, even though it offered an intriguing guide to the web of corruption that entangled the Blagojevich administration.

Among Gnutek’s explosive allegations: Cellini, thanks to Blagojevich, controlled the Illinois State Police and the Illinois Gaming Board. (At the time, a spokeswoman for the governor dismissed the lawsuit as a “ludicrous conspiracy theory.”)

Cellini, the complaint alleges, enjoyed close and rewarding relationships with every state governor in the past three decades, especially with Republicans James R. Thompson, who funneled taxpayer money into Cellini’s real-estate ventures, and Jim Edgar, whose patronage chief was Cellini’s sister.

But it Cellini’s influence at the ISP figured prominently in Gnutek’s complaint.

Larry Trent, who had retired from ISP in the early 1990s, was working as head of security for Argosy Gaming — Cellini’s casino company at the time — when he was tapped in 2003 by Blagojevich to head ISP. (Argosy was sold in 2005; Trent recently resigned — presumably under pressure from Blagojevich’s successor, Gov. Pat Quinn.) Gnutek’s complaint identifies Cellini family members who worked at ISP, and cites examples in which Cellini allegedly controlled personnel decisions.

Cellini’s other business interests have included New Frontier, a real-estate development and management company that has the State of Illinois as a major tenant; Illinois National Bank (he’s an investor and, until at least recently, has been a member of its board); the President Lincoln Hotel (the state foreclosed on the property last year); and Commonwealth Realty Advisors (which was recently ousted as a manager of state teacher retirement funds).

In response to Thursday’s indictment, Cellini’s lawyer Dan K. Webb issued a statement saying his client would request a separate trial. Webb described his client as an upstanding citizen of Illinois.

“Bill has lived an exemplary life as a successful businessman and devoted husband and father, and he will not allow his reputation to be damaged by these unfair and unjust charges.” — Roland Klose (rwklose@sbcglobal.net)