CHICAGO – A Hollywood producer who was the victim of an extortion plot allegedly involving Springfield businessman William Cellini said Cellini told him in 2004 that he would need to donate to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign or his real estate investment firm wouldn’t get state business.

CHICAGO – A Hollywood producer who was the victim of an extortion plot allegedly involving Springfield businessman William Cellini said Cellini told him in 2004 that he would need to donate to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s campaign or his real estate investment firm wouldn’t get state business.


Thomas Rosenberg, who produced the Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby,” testified Thursday that he was livid.


“I told Bill that I would not be shaken down,” Rosenberg told the jury. “I screamed and cursed.”


Cellini, a Republican fundraiser, is charged with conspiring with former Teachers’ Retirement System board member Stuart Levine and former Blagojevich fundraisers Tony Rezko and the late Christopher Kelly to extort either a $1.5 million campaign contribution or a $2 million bribe from Rosenberg in order for Rosenberg’s real estate investment firm, Capri Capital, to receive $220 million in TRS funds for investment.


Cellini told Rosenberg the TRS cash was being held up after Rezko and Kelly had a fundraising meeting with a person Cellini described as a black man who looked like he was white, Rosenberg testified.


Rosenberg believed the man was Allison Davis, a friend and Chicago developer who worked with Rosenberg on “The Human Stain,” a film based on a Philip Roth novel about a fair-skinned black college professor thought by many to be white who was accused of racism.


Cellini told Rosenberg that Davis had told Rezko and Kelly that Rosenberg was interested in making a political contribution to Blagojevich, Rosenberg testified. However, he said, he never sent Davis to see the duo and he angrily confronted Davis later in a phone call.


“I told him I would stand on the corner of State and Madison and discuss this. I don’t have a problem … Let them know they have a problem,” Rosenberg said he told Cellini to tell Rezko and Kelly.


Cellini nervous


Rosenberg said he meant to send the message that he would tell Blagojevich about what Rezko and Kelly were doing. He believed Rezko and Kelly were targets of federal investigators.


“He’d freak out about it,” Rosenberg said of the former governor.


The conversation, which happened in May 2004, made Cellini nervous, Rosenberg said.


“He said he couldn’t be like me because he had to deal with these guys,” Rosenberg said. “I told them (through Cellini) they had 48 hours to straighten this out.”


Jurors listened attentively as Rosenberg testified for the second day.


Several days later, Rosenberg said, Cellini called back and said Rezko and Kelly claimed to have nothing to do with the alleged shakedown. Cellini said he could call Levine and check into whether he was holding up Capri’s funds. Rosenberg agreed, and Cellini reported back that Levine said he had no involvement, Rosenberg testified.


Rosenberg said he asked Cellini whether Capri would get the money. Cellini said he would check with TRS executive director Jon Bauman, who told Cellini the investment would go forward “if it was OK with ‘the pope,’” Rosenberg testified.


“I understood he was referring to himself,” Rosenberg said of Cellini. “The reference was to the church, and there’s nobody more important than the pope.”


On May 25, 2004, the TRS board voted to give Capri its money.


 


Defense: Cellini tried to help


Cellini’s lawyer, Terry Gillespie, focused on Rosenberg’s relationship with Cellini and Levine in his cross-examination. While U.S. District Judge James Zagel disallowed many of his questions, Gillespie attempted to get across the defense’s contention that Cellini was only helping Rosenberg, a friend of 30 years, at Rosenberg’s request.


Rosenberg testified that he called Levine’s lawyer, former Chicago Ald. Ed Vrdolyak, to ask if Levine was holding up the investment. Rosenberg testified that he believed Vrdolyak when he said Levine wasn’t involved.


Levine testified this week that Vrdolyak was to share with him, Kelly and Rezko, a $2 million bribe they were plotting to extort from Rosenberg.


“I didn’t actually think it was Stuart Levine,” Rosenberg said regarding the call to Vrdolyak, “but I wanted to make sure.”


Vrdolyak is serving a 10-month federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to wire fraud and mail fraud in connection with a different kickback scheme involving Levine. He is scheduled for release next month.


Credibility questioned


Gillespie also tried to poke holes in Rosenberg’s credibility, asking whether Rosenberg ever told Cellini about Levine’s numerous attempts to extort money from him.


“Never,” Rosenberg replied.


Referring to interviews with the FBI and federal prosecutors, Gillespie asked whether Rosenberg remembers telling them he never had a personal or business relationship with Levine prior to 2001. Rosenberg said he didn’t remember saying that. He also said he couldn’t remember whether he volunteered information to law enforcement about Levine’s prior extortion attempts.


“I answered the questions carefully,” Rosenberg said.


Prosecutors rested their case after Molly Phelan, a former Rockford schoolteacher and TRS board member testified.


Defense attorneys can begin presenting their case Friday, or they could rest without calling any witnesses and argue the prosecution has not proven its case. The trial resumes at 9 a.m. Friday.


Chris Wetterich can be reached at (217) 788-1523.