Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Bank of America will pay a multimillion dollar settlement to resolve allegations of discriminatory loans by its subsidiary, Countrywide that took place between 2004 and 2007. The case stems from a lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general's office.
Back in March 2008, Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a fair lending subpoena to Countrywide after a report found that the company sold higher-cost loans in the Chicago area to more African Americans and Hispanics compared to white borrowers.
Bank of America's decision to pay a $335 million dollar settlement signals the largest settlement of its kind over residential fair lending practices.
The settlement with the U.S. Justice Department was filed Wednesday with the Central District court of California and is subject to court approval. According to the DOJ's complaint, Countrywide charged over 200,000 African-American and Hispanic borrowers higher fees and interest rates than non-Hispanic white borrowers with a similar credit profile.
Natalie Bauer, who's a spokeswoman in the Illinois attorney general's office, said approximately 15,000 people in the state may be eligible for restitution under the settlement.
"The settlement is one of those ways that we will be able to help homeowners on the ground who are struggling right now as a result of the illegal practices that banked used in the lead up to the crash of the economy back in 2008," Bauer said.
Dan Frahm, a Bank of America spokesman, said in a statement that the bank does not practice lending based on race.
"We discontinued Countrywide products and practices that were not in keeping with our commitment and will continue to resolve and put behind us the remaining Countrywide issues," Frahm said.
The United States' complaint said that Countrywide was aware that the fees and interest rates that its loan officers were charging discriminated against African-American and Hispanic borrowers, but failed to impose meaningful limits or guidelines to stop it.
People who believe they were victims of lending discrimination should e-mail the U.S. Department of Justice at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bauer said a settlement administrator will review those claims.
Meanwhile, the Illinois attorney general's office has filed a similar lawsuit against Wells Fargo for discriminatory lending practices.
Champaign Unit 4 schools has hired from within for the district's next leader.
Judy Wiegand was named the district's next superintendent Wednesday afternoon, succeeding Arthur Culver, who left six months ago.
She is also the first female superintendent in Unit 4 history. Wiegand has been with the district since 1987, starting as a special education teacher, and most recently as assistant superintendent for achievement and pupil services. Wiegand was slated to become the next interim superintendent next month.
"This is a community that wants and deserves the best for its students," she said. "I want to inspire a high level of confidence, trust, and respect for our schools. We need in order to continue to grow and improve."
Her long-term goals include more offerings in career and technical education, and master plans for Unit 4's middle and high schools.
"This is a community that deserves the best, and really the economic vibrancy of the community is going to be related to the quality of the education," Wiegand said. "So I want to make sure we are doing the very best for our students. I also want to take a look at the relationship that we have with our community, and making sure that they have confidence and trust in what we're doing."
Unit 4 School Board President Sue Grey said the district didn't realize what a rising star it had.
"She has all those things that other people who have worked with her have had the opportunity to see," Grey said. "And so as we interviewed her, those were the things that really started coming through in the interview process. I think the light started to go on for all of us, saying - 'Aha - we've got something good here."
Initially, the 49-year old Wiegand didn't want to be considered for Unit 4's top job, saying she wasn't 100-percent sure by the application deadline in October.
"As I continued to work with (Interim Superintendent Dr. Robert) Malito, with the board, I felt a responsibility to step and put my name in, and be considered," she said. "This is a great opportunity."
Wiegand said her priorities include further development of the STEM initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into the middle and high school levels, and improving offerings in career and technical education.
Unit 4 board member Jamar Brown said public perception is the biggest hurdle that Wiegand faces as she starts her new job.
"Being a part of previous administrations, people wonder if there will be more of the same," Brown said. "I think with her being very professional, and having the vision, and also working with Dr. Malito the last six months, I think she can definitely take this school district to a different level."
"She really is the consummate professional," Grey said. "I don't think we realized who was in our backyard."
Contracts terms for Wiegand haven't been finalized yet, but she expects to begin working on transitioning into the superintendent's job with Dr. Malito early Thursday morning.
The other finalists for the superintendent position were Darryl Taylor, superintendent of a one-school district in Calumet City, and Johnnie Thomas, an associate superintendent at the Arlington Heights Township High School district.
Voters in Champaign and Urbana will see a referendum on the March primary ballot, asking them if they want their city to launch an electric aggregation program.
Electric aggregation is the concept of bundling together all residential and small business electric accounts within a community, and seeking bids to get lower power prices from retail suppliers.
Urbana environmental sustainability manager Bart Hagston said more than 100 communities in Ameren's Illinois territory are giving voters this option. If they opt to take part, he said their billing routine will stay pretty much the same.
"People would still receive their bill from Ameren, because would still be the lines and the wires that the electricity is coming through, " he said. "You would still call Ameren if there's a power outage, there's just a different supplier for that electricity and they bill through Ameren, so people won't see much of a change."
Hagston says if an aggregation program is approved by voters, the city would then select an alternate electricity supplier through a competitive bidding process. Once a supplier is in place, electric customers would have the option to "opt-out" of the program at no charge. They could continue with regular Ameren service, or choose another alternate supplier, such as Direct Energy or Constellation Energy.
Hagston said for some customers, such as those relying on percentage of income payment plans, opting out wouldn't make sense. He said a consultant will be in Urbana next month to discuss the pros and cons of the aggregation option to community groups.
Meanwhile, the Champaign County Board voted Tuesday night to postpone a decision on the electric aggregate ballot question until May - meaning voters in unincorporated parts of the county will not see the item on their ballots until November at the earliest.
(UPDATE: This story has been revised for clarity).
Indiana Settles with Victims of Stage Rigging Collapse
Nearly all of the 65 people who were injured at last summer's Indiana State Fair when a stage rigging collapsed have accepted the state's settlement offer.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday shot down a measure by the U.S. Senate to extend payroll tax relief for two months. The Republican-controlled House instead sent the measure to a joint conference committee, so that both parties can try to negotiate on a compromise.
But Urbana Republican Tim Johnson did not vote along party lines. Johnson said that is because the issue became too politicized.
"To laden this measure down with political agendas and extraneous, irrelevant riders is simply unacceptable," Johnson said in a statement. "Unfortunately, this is part of business-as-usual inside the beltway politics and I refuse to be part of that misplaced strategy."
The House passed a full-year extension of the payroll tax last week, but included many spending cuts opposed by Democrats. If lawmakers fail to reach an agreement, nearly 160 million workers could see a tax hike in January, while almost two million people could lose their unemployment benefits.
(Reported by Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess)
A faith-based group in Champaign that is trying to find housing for the area's most vulnerable homeless residents has completed its first successful match.
C-U At Home connected Vernon Chounard to a two-bedroom rental home - his first permanent home since 2000.
The group will pay for utilities while the property owners - Deana and Luke Hammock - will forgo the $500 monthly rent until April.
Chounard moved in Tuesday afternoon during a public housewarming party, and he said that having a place to live means everything.
"I don't have to worry about waking up soaking wet or freezing or having a place to lay my head," Chounard said.
Chounard had lived on the streets for the last decade.
"I ain't going to lie, I'm an alcoholic," he said. "But I'm working on that too."
Deana Hammock said she and her husband bought the house initially to use as part of their church ministry. It has been vacant for several months.
"We are called to share what we have," Hammock said. "There are so many places out there that are vacant right now, it's fairly easy for other landlords to do something."
C-U At Home is part of a nationwide campaign that aims to house 100,000 vulnerable homeless people within the next two years. John Smith of C-U At Home said that Chounard is one of the nearly 12,000 homeless people in the country to find a home in the past year.
(Photo by Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess)
The pharmaceutical company, Abbott and the University of Illinois have set up a center that is focused on the connection between nutrition and the health of the brain.
Located on the Urbana-Champaign campus, the Center for Nutrition, Learning and Memory is looking for research proposals that would be funded for a year. The Center's director is Neal Cohen, who heads the university's neuroscience program. He said nutritional scientists are pushing to know more about the role of nutrition in learning and memory.
"At the same time, neuroscientist are looking for ways to impact the brain that has included the effects of exercise and now the effects of nutrition," Cohen said. "This project is right at the intersection of that."
The center plans to use the U of I's existing research facilities at the Institute for Genomic Biology and the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
The first call for research proposals closes on January 6, and those submissions will then be narrowed down to several final projects, which will receive funding.
New Illinois football coach Tim Beckman has hired two members of his staff at Toledo to join him in Champaign.
The school said Tuesday that Beckman has hired assistant Rockets head coach Mike Ward and running backs coach and recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh. They are Beckman's first two hires at Illinois. Their positions on the Illinois staff will be announced later.
Ward served as a co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Toledo. He has coached there since 2009 after coaching at Bowling Green from 1992 through 2008.
Golesh has been at Toledo since 2009. He previously coached as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma State and Northern Illinois.
Beckman was hired earlier this month to replace Ron Zook, who was fired after a 6-6 season.
Urbana's city council will further explore the idea of a seven-story downtown development that would include retail space, offices, and condominiums.
Champaign developer Gary Olsen now estimates the cost at a little over $80-million. Monday night's 5-0 vote by the city council meant no firm commitment, but directed Urbana's legal staff to prepare a document, saying Olsen can market his Vine Street Metro Centre idea to investors.
The plan looks to have four total levels of office space, retail on the first floor, and nearly 30 condominiums on two others. Two levels of parking would be underground, and town homes would be in a smaller building to the east. Alderman Charlie Smyth called the project ambitious, telling Olsen he is 'moving forward in spite of the economy.'
It's one the developer believes will turn around.
"The United States will slowly get out of this," Olsen said. "That's what I'm counting on. It will be a much better situation when this building is dedicated - maybe in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of our beautiful shopping center. It probably needs some help, too".
Lincoln Square Village is across the street from the proposed site, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2014. Mayor Laurel Prussing said the size of the proposal concerns her, but wants to take the time to get the proper amount of public input.
"It's our land, and we're going to be very much involved in what's the proper scale," she said. "What's economically viable? You're never going to get a perfect answer, but you get to a better answer by having a lot of discussion about it and involving a lot of people. And if there's investors that are willing to do it at a certain scale, that tells you something right there."
Olsen said such a site would appeal to non-profit groups, and lawyers, who could walk to the nearby federal and county courthouses.
The plan is to locate in Urbana's Tax Increment Financing District, and also where Goodyear Tire holds a lease on the property. So if the project moves forward, it's unlikely any construction would take place in 2012. Olsen's plan also includes a separate building of town homes to the east.
The city council expects to revisit the Metro Centre idea next month.
(Drawing courtesy of Olsen and Associates)
Gov. Pat Quinn says he'll put together a panel to review the state's pension system following a newspaper's investigations.
Quinn made the announcement Monday following a series of stories by the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV.
In a story published Sunday, the Tribune reported that dozens of employees of private groups qualify for public pensions through Illinois State University even when they don't work on campus. In October the newspaper reported that two lobbyists with no teaching experience were allowed to count past years as union employees toward state teacher pensions after substitute teaching for only one day.
The Chicago Tribune reports that Quinn says the panel will be led by a senior adviser and will suggest changes to prevent abuses of the pension system.
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