Jury selection starts in last Blago-related trial

AP News
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Posted: Oct 03, 2011 7:19 PM
Jury selection starts in last Blago-related trial

A woman who follows celebrity gossip blogger Perez Hilton on Twitter, a U.S. postal worker and a substitute teacher who choked back tears as she talked about her family's financial hardships were among the potential jurors Monday in the last trial stemming from the decade-long investigation of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Those chosen for the jury will eventually have to decide whether the government has proven school teacher-turned-mega millionaire William Cellini conspired to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby" for a $1.5 million campaign contribution to the Democratic governor.

The slight, gray-haired Cellini, 76, is a lifelong Republican known in his heyday as The King of Clout and the pope of Illinois politics because of his knack for quietly cozying up to those in power.

He listened intently as jury selection started Monday with questions from the presiding judge. Cellini jotted down notes and occasionally leaned over to speak with his lead attorney, former U.S. Attorney Dan Webb. When Webb introduced his client to the several dozen potential jurors as the proceedings began, Cellini stood and bowed slightly in their direction.

The enigmatic Cellini has shunned the spotlight since his indictment in 2008, and he didn't speak to reporters as he entered the Chicago courthouse Monday. But he appeared at-ease _ his hands in his pockets, smiling and joking with relatives sitting on a spectators' bench just before his trial began.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel questioned just eight jurors Monday, asking several if they had ever heard of Cellini or the allegations against him. The U.S. postal employee was among those who said he had heard something of the case but could be evenhanded. None of the eight said they could recall any details.

Among the others questioned Monday was an avid reader of Oprah magazine, a former 911 dispatcher in the Chicago area and a clerk at a state court who aspires to become a paralegal or sheriff's deputy.

The approximately 30-year-old woman who follows Perez Hilton on Twitter wrote on her questionnaire that, "There doesn't seem to be much accountability about spending (political campaign) money."

But she also assured the judge she could fairly assess the evidence in Cellini's case.

The substitute teacher began to tear up as she told Zagel that a printing company her husband has worked at for 18 years recently slashed his salary in half.

"This was a shock . . . utterly unexpected," said the woman, who appeared to be around 40.

The judge told jurors the trial, which is being held in the same Chicago courtroom where Blagojevich was recently convicted of trying to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat, was likely to last three to five weeks.

After just an hour, Zagel adjourned until Tuesday morning, saying he had matters in another case to attend to. Jury selection was expected to take all day Tuesday, with attorneys delivering opening statements later in the week.

Cellini, who is free on $1 million bond, has pleaded not guilty to attempted extortion, solicitation of a bribe and other charges. If convicted, he faces the prospect of several years in prison.

Blagojevich was convicted at retrial earlier this year. His two trials revealed the ex-governor as charismatic but lacking discipline. He seemed to bumble his way through his job and now, at 54, is broke and about to be sentenced to prison.

State contacts helped Cellini earn tens of millions from real estate, casino and even asphalt businesses, and he has held on to much of his wealth. The son of a policeman, Cellini has a reputation as savvy and meticulous and a man not to be crossed.

Prosecutors planned to tell jurors how Cellini forged ties with top-tier politicians as far back as the 1960s. The defense objected in pretrial hearings that prosecutors were trying to cast Cellini's knack for befriending the powerful in a sinister light.