Play Chronicles Course of Political Downfall in Illinois

Dec 9, 2013

The curtains are closing on the Chicago play, "I Wish to Apologize to the People of Illinois" -- a timely production, given that today, Dec. 9, is the fifth anniversary of Rod Blagojevich's arrest.  Two trials later, he was convicted on 18 counts of corruption. 

Stuart Levine, left, and Rod Blagojevich

At Blagojevich's sentencing hearing, the deposed governor said he was sorry for his mistakes.  But he was not the one making apologies in this show.  He's not even a character -- just someone who gets mentioned now and again. 

Rather, it's an actor playing Stuart Levine -- the political fixer credited with helping prosecutors to ultimately take down Blagojevich  -- who's doing the apologizing. Levine went from being one of the most connected men in Illinois to selling electronic cigarettes at kiosk in a mall. It's the stuff dramas are meant for. Or so thought playwrights Andrew Gallant and Tim Touhy.

Chicago, Ill., is the kind of town -- in the kind of state, really -- where a self-admitted drug-addict like Stu Levine could be worth $70 million dollars -- money he made by bribing politicians, by gaining the trust of a dying friend (only to bilk the pal's kids of millions) and by using his  appointments on various state boards to extort cash.

As a trustee on boards like the Teachers Retirement System, he could ensure that friends' companies got contracts -- because after all, if he looked after them, they would look after him.  The likes of the schemes are detailed by Levine himself, in real life, in court transcripts and his eventual plea agreement

Early in the play, there's a scene in which prosecutors come to Levine's fancy, Highland Park home to coax him into cooperating, in exchange for leniency

"Maybe you can think of it this way: The federal government would like to offer you a job. You would be wise to take it, because better offers aren't coming," an actress playing an FBI agent says. "From this second forward, the life you've been leading has been irrevocably altered. We're giving you this choice because we know you can be of use to us

Gallant and Touhy used court transcripts and newspaper articles to detail the whole string of kickbacks, and setups. In the play, a generic journalist serves as narrator to make sense of the shenanigans.

"So what Stuart did was give us the inside story, as told by a quintessential political insider.  When he took that stand, I swear you could hear shallow breathing in government offices and back rooms from Springfield to Chicago, because what he knew was how the real game was played. It was like a live grenade going off in the most-crowded courtrooms -- crowded with names like Cellini, Rezko, Vrdolyak."

Levine once rubbed elbows with those power brokers. The play traces some of their schemes. At one point, Levine and Rezko plot over dinner.

"$7 million; that's $3.5 million for each of us," Levin says. "That's great," Rezko replies.

One by one -- thanks to Levine's cooperation, prosecutors say -- they all fell down:

"In the case of the United States vs. William Cellini: The court sentences you to one year and one day in prison. Next!"

"In the case of the United States vs Tony Rezko. The court sentences you to ten and a half years in prison. Next!"

And, ultimately, "In the case of the United States vs Rod Blagojevich, the court sentences you to 14 and a half years in prison

The prosecutors in the play  --- as they did at his real-life sentencing -- ask for leniency for Levine at his sentencing, because he was so helpful in taking down his former circle

All of it is theater for old friends like Jeff Rochman of Evanston who saw a showing of the play on a recent Saturday night

"I knew Stuart," Rochman says. "He was a roommate in college.”

Rochman says they didn't keep in touch much after they graduated from the University of Illinois, and he has a hard time connecting the Stu Levine he knew in 1968 with his persona now. 

Rochman says, although he's unhappy with Illinois politics, there's a part of him that feels sorry for Levine.

"He made some horrible choices; and his life is ruined. You can't feel angry at a person like that. They've paid the price."

Rochman has no sympathy, though. for Rod Blagojevich. He says Blagojevich was elected and then broke his oath of office to the people of Illinois.

Apology, not accepted.