October 5, 2012
Combine boss William Cellini sat at the defense table, blinking, head bowed, a tiny man who was Mr. Big in Illinois politics, waiting, finally, for what was coming to him.
The crowd was filling in to support him Thursday, his family and a great tribe of political friends packing the courtroom. He sat there with his back to them, looking straight ahead, blinking and blinking, in a dark suit and blue tie, with that Julius Caesar hairdo on his scalp.
Watching him, I wondered what he was thinking, whether he was afraid, embarrassed or merely annoyed, and I began drifting myself, remembering back to when I first started writing about the bipartisan political Combine of insiders who run things in Illinois. Back then, the mouthpieces and lickspittles insisted that such talk was nuts.
"Mr. Kass, I'm Julie Cellini," said the woman standing in front of me, and like that, I stood up.
It was Cellini's wife, well dressed, icily polite in immaculate gray. She didn't blink. Not once. She looked exactly as she does in the mural in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, though in the mural she's not identified as Mrs. Cellini, merely as a woman in a Civil War crowd scene commemorating Lee's surrender to Grant. The Cellinis were benefactors of the museum.
She wore gray in the mural too. In the courtroom, I noticed her eyes widening. Yes, it was awkward, but I stuck out my hand and she was polite enough to shake it, though I don't know why, since only a few days ago I wrote a column asking federal Judge James Zagel to throw the book at her husband.
"You are his wife?"
"Yes," she said.
We just stood there for some time, the silence turning from merely awkward to something else, and I could feel her anger but also her love for her family and her husband. She seemed like she wanted me to say something, and so I did, telling her that though her husband and I were at odds, it was obvious that his family loved him.
She nodded without blinking, turned and walked away. Zagel entered, we stood again, then sat, and the lawyers talked and talked before Zagel pronounced sentence.
And so it is personal. How could it not be? I've been writing about the Combine for almost as long as I've been writing this column, and they hate it. And it was certainly personal for the 364 people who wrote letters to Zagel on Cellini's behalf, asking for mercy, telling of Cellini's kindnesses.
The judge said he'd never received so many letters. Then Zagel really shocked me, and a few other reporters in the courtroom, when he talked about a few of the pro-Cellini letters. Among these, Zagel said, were "letters from three prominent journalists."
Prominent journalists? Is that why he was able to fly under the radar for so long?
Those names are sealed in the court file per Zagel's orders, I'm told, but whoever they are, the three prominent journalists and the others and Mrs. Cellini got what they asked for. They wanted mercy from Zagel. And that's what he gave them.
They may have wanted probation, but a year and a day isn't that bad, not for conspiracy to commit extortion. A year and a day doesn't mean a year and a day. Federal inmates must serve 85 percent of their time before parole, which means that the Combine boss might only do about 10 months, with some time in a halfway house, before coming home.
He'll leave in January and should be home by Thanksgiving.
It would have been worse if Zagel had given him a year. A sentence of a year or less would have required Cellini to serve all his time. But all he'll miss is a baseball season, and he'll be back in Springfield, holding court, perhaps having lunch with the three prominent journalists.
Cellini certainly didn't show remorse for his crimes: using his political connections on government boards and commissions in an extortion conspiracy, trying to shake down Hollywood movie producer Tom Rosenberg for campaign cash for former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Cellini stood before Zagel, said that his family had suffered, that he had suffered.
"My health is broken," he said, referring to his heart condition.
But he never said, "I'm sorry I committed the crimes." He apologized for putting his family through hell, but that's not the same thing as apologizing to the taxpayers for bending their government to his will.
Downstairs in the lobby of the federal building, acting U.S. Attorney Gary Shapiro, a longtime veteran of the office who has spent his career studying the intersection of Illinois politics and organized crime, looked at the case philosophically.
There was a time, he said, when no one would have thought Cellini could ever be indicted, or brought into a courtroom, or sentenced to prison. And so even short time for a Combine boss does send a message.
"And this is a small community we're talking about, the sort of bipartisan cabal of Illinois, the people that are the behind-the-scenes folks that fuel the corruption, that raise the money," Shapiro said. "Those people pay attention to things like this."
They would have paid more attention, horrified attention, rapt attention, if Cellini had gotten more time. But he got some. And Cellini's going away.
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