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Kass: Have mercy, your honor, for Illinois

Republican power broker William Cellini doesn't deserve sympathy

John Kass

September 30, 2012

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To the Honorable U.S. District Judge James Zagel

Dirksen Federal Courthouse, 219 S. Dearborn St., Chicago

Dear Judge Zagel:

I'm not some Indonesian orphan, or a young man suffering from cerebral palsy, or a Chinese political asylum seeker. And I'm not a former governor of Illinois, like Republican Jim Edgar, with that squeaky clean image and those kinky Combine friends of his.

These four and many others have written you letters — 364 in all, according to court filings — asking for mercy and compassion as you prepare for Thursday's sentencing of convicted Illinois Republican power broker and Combine boss William Cellini.

"The 364 letters attest to the fact that Mr. Cellini went far beyond making a positive difference in certain individuals' lives," Cellini's lawyers argued in a court document, adding that "simply put, through thousands of individual instances over the course of a lifetime of quiet beneficence and charity, Mr. Cellini transformed lives. …"

When I think of Illinois political corruption and the bipartisan Combine that runs things, the first thing I think of is "quiet beneficence." Don't you?

The document lists his countless selfless acts, how Cellini cleaned chickens on a poultry farm, how he showed kindness to strangers, including the Indonesian orphan, and how he sponsored youth baseball teams. Edgar, in his letter, insisted that Cellini never asked him to break even one little rule. Not one.

So I've decided to write my own letter. Please put this one in the docket too. Like the other 364, this one asks you to search your heart for mercy and compassion.

But not for Big Bill Cellini, shadow Republican boss of the Combine.

The Indonesian orphan or the Chinese asylum seeker might not know this, but Cellini is a political gangster who has made a fortune through government. He was convicted in your courtroom of using his connections for corrupt purposes. So before you give mercy to Cellini, how about this?

How about some mercy for the people of Illinois?

We're tired, Judge Zagel, tired of the parade of political thieves who gorge on our state. Now we're broke, the state is broke, Chicago is broke, other local governments are broke, and our taxes keep going up to pay for the political arrangements made by the insiders over the past 40 years.

On the first day of the trial, I remember seeing Cellini in the lobby of the federal building, the man who bragged that he'd been able to fly "under the radar" for years. How he was able to do so I'll leave to media historians, but here's what I saw: a tiny man with tiny feet and a Julius Caesar haircut, head hunched forward, elbows at his sides, the hands up and slightly curved as he walked. All that was missing was a tail.

Usually it is the chiselers who go away, the little puppets dancing on strings, the two-bit crooks and buffoons. Sometimes the emotionally needy frontmen are trapped, like those two former governors, George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich, who are now in prison where they belong.

But they're not Cellini. He's the puppet master. If you give him probation or a light sentence, you'll make Cellini's people smile. Big Bill might even giggle into his hand.

Remember that giggle? You heard it on federal tape in your courtroom, Cellini giggling with the lowlife Republican Stuart Levine. They were giggling about how they used their control of state boards and commissions in a Democratic administration — with the help of convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko (the president's real estate fairy) — to squeeze Hollywood movie producer Tom Rosenberg for campaign contributions.

"If Tom feels he'd rather walk away from the money than deal with Tony, there it is," Cellini said on that federal recording.

Then he and Levine began to laugh some more.

It wasn't a belly laugh, not some honest chuckle from a man who is open and free with his humor. This was a calculated wispy laugh, like a fingernail on wax paper and just as thin, the laugh of a man who had things wired, including our government.

He's had this entire state wired for years, even before former Gov. Big Jim Thompson put Cellini at the front of the state casino license list and Cellini began raking it in. After the casino deal came that Springfield hotel deal, and political development deals in Chicago with Mayor Daley's guys, and on and on.

Conservative estimates place his wealth at upward of $50 million. But I'm told it could be several times that. Who knows? It's not a crime to make money. And he wasn't charged with being rich.

Cellini's lawyers say that you should give him probation because he's old and sick — with a heart condition that became apparent soon after his conviction. But many sick criminals have been sent to prison. The bosses all get sick in the end. So why is he special? Because he's a Republican with contacts?

Judge Zagel, I know that federal prosecutors have signaled they wouldn't be terribly upset if you sentenced Cellini to less than the recommended sentencing guideline of 61/2 to eight years. That's terrible. I think prosecutors should demand the entire eight years.

If Cellini wants out early, then he can tell the feds he's willing to testify against other politicians — Democrats and Republicans — in future corruption trials. And then we'll all get a laugh.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass