Illinois Public Media News
Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin met Wednesday with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to talk about assisting the southern part of the state damaged by deadly storms.
A tornado tore through the Harrisburg area last month, killing seven people.
Assistance from FEMA would help with repairs and rebuilding, but the agency denied the state's request for federal help. FEMA had ruled that insurance, charities and state money could cover costs linked to the storm that tore through five southern Illinois counties.
Speaking after the meeting with FEMA, Durbin said Illinois is getting another chance.
"I still feel confident, having seen this damage and compared it to a lot of other disasters, that we have a good fighting chance for this federal declaration," Durbin said. "I want it to happen, the people down there have suffered enough. Seven people lost their lives, a lot of folks are out of their homes, the community has just pitched in in every way possible to help out. This federal declaration will help a lot of people get back on their feet."
Speculating about why Illinois didn't receive assistance from FEMA the first time, Durbin said application materials gathered were lacking information. He said he expects FEMA to get a revised application in less than a week, and then make a decision within a few days.
For the first time in twenty years, the Illinois G-O-P presidential primary will really matter. That is according to Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Hastert stopped in the Quad Cities on Wednesday as part of a state-wide tour to garner support for Republican Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. Hastert said after working with all of the Republican contenders over the years, he decided to support Romney.
"I have a lot of respect for Newt Gingrich. He's a smart guy and he's very articulate," Hastert said. "As you'll find with most of the people who worked with Newt aren't supporting Newt because he's sometimes very eccentric. You never know which direction at kind of a snap of a finger he'll decide to go."
Illinois voters will decide in next Tuesday's primary, how the state's 69 delegates will be divided.
So far in the campaign Romney is in the lead with 495 delegates with Rick Santorum in second at 252.
The two candidates vying for the Republican nomination in Illinois' 51st State Senate district faced each other Tuesday in their only debate.
State Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet and Tom Pliura of Le Roy debated each other in Bloomington. Rose said his priority is getting Illinois' budget under control. He said his experience as a fifth-term State Representative will help him cut state spending.
"This year and this current budget we actually cut $2.8 billion out of the current budget. Now, the reality is we need to go beyond that," Rose said. "We need to cut more."
Pliura has never run for public office, but if elected, he has said he will serve no more than two terms. He said his own lack of political experience will shake things up in Springfield, unlike his opponent whom he referred to as "another career politician."
"We've got enough politicians down in Springfield," Pliura said. "We need some problem solvers. We can't blame the Democrats when we got to clean up our own house."
Illinois' Republican primary is next Tuesday.
Federal authorities arrested an Illinois state representative from Chicago on one count federal bribery charge Tuesday. Democrat Derrick Smith represents the 10th House District, which includes sections of the city's West and North sides.
The U.S. Attorney's office said it has Smith on tape accepting a $7,000 cash bribe this past weekend. Prosecutors alleged Smith took the bribe in exchange for supporting a $50,000 state grant request from a daycare center.
According to the criminal complaint, it was all set up by a paid FBI informant who did campaign work for Smith. The informant's conversations with the representative were recorded, the complaint said.
A call and e-mail to Smith's office were not returned. He appeared in court Tuesday afternoon, but made no comment about the charges.
Smith has only been a member of the House since last spring, when, with the backing of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, he was appointed to fill a vacancy.
"I am very disappointed with the conduct alleged in the charges," White said in a statement. "I am confident this case will be handled fairly and justly by the judicial system."
Smith's arrest came a week before Democratic voters pick between him and challenger Tom Swiss. Swiss said he thinks the news could actually cause problems for his campaign, by awakening Democratic leaders backing Smith who may have been taking the race for granted.
"This is going to alert everybody to this race and there's still six days left," Swiss said. "There's a lot bigger people out there with deeper pockets and larger armies that can come in and really do an awful lot of work."
Swiss is a former local Republican official who Democrats claim has run a racially-insensitive campaign in this West and North Side district.
Two Democrats hope to take advantage of the new congressional map as they try to unseat entrenched Republican Tim Johnson. Pundits say whoever wins the primary next week has a solid chance of winning in November.
The new 13th congressional district is among those crafted by Illinois Democrats so the six-term GOP incumbent Tim Johnson would be vulnerable.
The re-drawn Congressional district contains Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Springfield, and trades away Republican strongholds in the northern part of the old 15th district in exchange for Democratically-leaning Madison county and Metro East.
One of the Democratic candidates in the race is Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten.
"I've been a prosecutor the last eight years, the last seven as the Greene County States Attorney," Goetten said, touting his experience. "I'm a veteran of Afghanistan. I've been in the Illinois Army National Guard the last 13 years and more recently I transferred to the Air National Guard. I've been a small business owner. I have been an educator. I was a high school teacher for a short time."
Goetten's opponent is David Gill, the Bloomington emergency room physician who is taking his fourth shot at unseating Johnson. Gill said he has a solid shot this time because the district looks so different.
"If the map hadn't changed, if it was still Illinois 15, I don't know that I was going to keep beating my head against the wall," Goetten said. "God bless Ford County and Douglas County and Iroqouis County, but there are places there where God with a "D" after his name couldn't beat Satan with an "R" after his name."
Those areas are not a factor anymore, but included in the new 13th are predominantly rural areas in other traditionally-leaning Republican areas of Greene, Jersey and Macoupin counties. Gill said he is confident he can perform well there.
"I've lived in rural areas in the past and a lot of that is farming country, rural country. There's a way of life there that I think is very similar to what they have in Carrollton, Jerseyville and Carlinville," Gill said. "I feel very comfortable in those environments as I've been traveling these last seven months."
Despite that presence, Gill's name is recognized primarily in parts of the old 15th district--Champaign, Bloomington and Clinton.
Goetten is the son of Greene County's former State's Attorney. Norbert Goetten, and his brother, Benjamin Goetten, holds the same office in neighboring Jersey County.
The Goetten family is well connected in the Democratic Party and that connection helped lead to an unprecedented endorsement from Illinois' U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin.
"The part of the district where he's from traditionally would lean Republican, but he's gonna do well there," Durbin said. "I thought that may give him a slight advantage when it comes to the overall congressional district."
Gill campaign spokesman, Mike Richards said he was disappointed to see Durbin endorsing Goetten.
"But we're confident that David is going to win this primary because he's the only candidate who's been standing up for women's rights," Richards said. "He's been endorsed by the national NOW and he's the only candidate who is 100 percent pro-choice."
It is clear that Gill is highlighting Goetten's Catholic faith as a wedge between two candidates who, as even Goetten acknowledges, take very similar stances on many major issues.
Name recognition and political experience might be the key factor in this race, according to Illinois State University political scientist Erik Rankin, himself a Democrat and a member of the McLean County Board.
Rankin noted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing Goetten, and he says it is likely because Gill has already taken his three strikes at getting to Washington.
"The D triple C (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and the national party has just gotten to the point where they're looking at this race and going we're gonna put our eggs in the basket of the unknown rather than what we already know and assume to be the eventual loser," Rankin said.
Nevertheless, Gill said he's buoyed by strong grass roots support.
Gill said Macon County Republicans took the unusual step of voting on endorsement right after a joint appearance by both candidates, and he said the result was 50 Gill votes and none for Goetten.
On defense issues, both say the military budget should be open for cuts, though Goetten said he agrees with Defense Secretary Panetta that current proposed cuts aren't sustainable.
"We can shrink the military," Goetten said. "But I don't know that we can do that without sacrificing our ability to what we've been trying to do for the past ten years which is wage wars in two theaters of operation."
Both Gill and Goetten fervently attack GOP incumbent Tim Johnson.
Goetten said voters clearly want a change and Gill said Johnson lacks principle and cites Johnson's reversal on term limits, and his change of heart away from supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Johnson faces what appears to be token opposition in the primary from challengers Michael Firsching and Frank Metzger. But he could very well have the political fight of his life on his hands in November.
(Photos by Sean Powers/WILL)
A Republican primary for judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit pits an entrenched public figure in the legal community against a former prosecutor and current defense attorney.
Central Illinois' 11th Judicial Circuit covers McLean, Ford, Livingston, Logan, and Wooford Counties.
The candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the race are both McLean County natives and, of course, attorneys, but that is about where the similarities end.
Paul Lawrence comes from a family of lawyers well entrenched in McLean County's legal scene, while Chris Gramm turned to law after working a few years as an interpreter in Japan for Mitsubishi, and has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. Gramm touts his highly conservative views and unabashedly points to his political activity when greeting voters.
"When they find out that Chris Gramm has been vice chairman of the McLean County Republican Party for example, or Chris Gramm has done both prosecution and defensive cases," Gramm said. "I think that those are interesting things."
Lawrence was appointed to the seat vacated when Michael Prall retired last year. He has been a judge for ten years although he has never run for judge or any office. He says voters do not really care about a judge's political views.
"I certainly have not, uh, advertised myself as having conservative views or moderate views or liberal views," Lawrence said. "I don't think that is an important factor when you're looking at a judge. I think when you're looking at a judge you need to find a judge who's going to follow the law and that's what I've been doing."
Lawrence is a complete political newcomer and admits he's not comfortable in campaign mode. Political influence in judicial elections is nothing new to Illinois.
A recent Supreme Court race drew national attention for its multimillion dollar campaign contributions. But while Chris Gramm has aligned himself with the McLean County Republican Party, he had only received a few modest individual contributions from people associated with the party as of a few weeks to go in the race.
Illinois State University judicial scholar Bob Bradley said Gramm's ideological leanings don't do the process any favors.
"You should judge what the arguments are, what the facts are and you shouldn't be looking at that from a conservative or liberal lens because that means you're bringing an element of partiality into that that is not supposed to be there," Bradley said.
According to Bradley, Gramm is trying to draw a distinction between himself and Lawrence. That's difficult to do in a judicial campaign where voters, even in higher profile cases, have little knowledge about candidates. Surface issues tend to center around civic involvement, and not much else. The one reliable tool voters have is the ratings given to judicial candidates by the Bar Association.
Lawrence proudly touts his 95.1 percent rating given by lawyers in McLean County, while Gramm's 25-percent rating leaves him in the "not recommended" column.
Gramm brushes that off as insignificant, saying attorneys tend to reject his ultra-conservative views and that doesn't mirror the feelings of voters in McLean County.
But there is one "below the surface" issue that neither candidate likes to discuss. Late last year, an organization representing companies that get sued moved McLean County off a watch list to number eight nationally in its ranking of so-called "Judicial Hellhole."
The American Tort Reform Association a Judicial Hellhole as a place where civil judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, usually against companies that are defendants in civil lawsuits.
Madison and St. Clair counties in southern Illinois are ranked fifth nationally, in part according to the association, because only about one in 10 asbestos cases tried there had any connection to the area.
Asbestos cases are also at the heart of McLean County's Judicial Hellhole status. Travis Akin is executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. He said the main problem in McLean County is the conspiratorial nature of the cases being judged for the plainitffs.
"Companies that did not have a direct impact on exposing someone to asbestos are being held accountable through the idea," Akin said. "This civil conspiracy idea that these companies supposedly colluded to withhold evidence of the harmful effects of asbestos."
Akin said the problem is not the volume of cases in McLean County, but the out of balance size of the monetary judgments. Illinois Abuse Watch notes there was one jury verdict alone totaling more than $90-million last year.
Despite the Judicial hell hole designation, none of the judgments in McLean County asbestos cases had been vacated or overturned until a month ago, when appellate justices vacated two verdicts, one of them a $4-million judgment in a directed verdict case presided over by Judge Paul Lawrence.
Lawrence directed the verdict after Honeywell refused to comply with an order to produce a former employee as a trial witness--a product safety consultant Akin said had previously testified in 22 other McLean County cases.
Lawrence disagrees with the judicial hell hole ranking, saying lawyers in the county can attest to judicial fairness.
Asked whether or not there are problems with asbestos cases being tried in McLean County, Gramm said his work now is primarily in criminal cases so he can't offer an opinion on the civil suits. As to his chances of defeating a sitting, although appointed circuit court judge, Gramm said it happened ten years ago in McLean County and could happen again.
It's been exactly one year since Illinois got rid of the death penalty. But there are still questions about the fairness of the state's criminal justice system.
When Gov. Pat Quinn signed the law abolishing the death penalty, he said capital cases were too prone to error.
"We have tried over and over again to come up with a perfect system that makes no mistakes with respect to carrying out the death penalty," Quinn said. "We have found over and over again mistakes have been made."
People who worked for years to eliminate capital punishment are happy it's gone. But they say the system is still far from perfect. With death off the table, the state stopped paying for indigent defendants to have extra attorneys and expert witnesses at trial.
"The odds of someone being wrongfully convicted certainly have gone up, because not as much money is being put into the cases," said John Hanlon, the legal director of the Downstate Innocence Project. "Some might argue that a natural life sentence is just about as bad as a death sentence, because you spend the rest of your life in prison."
Hanlon used to represent defendants in capital cases. He said in better economic times, he hopes the legislature would consider spending to even the playing field for defendants facing life.
Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst ) has filed several bills to reinstate the death penalty. Reboletti, who is a former prosecutor. said some crimes are so heinous, they deserve the ultimate punishment.
"We had people on death row that murdered multiple victims," Reboletti said. "Murdered children. Home invaded and then murdered people. Raped them, murdered. And the sentence that's most appropriate -- is death."
Last year Reboletti tried to put the death penalty to a statewide referendum. That and a measure to reinstate it were approved in committee and made it onto the House floor, but they were never called for a vote.
This year he has not had as much success: Reboletti's bill to reinstate the death penalty hasn't even been assigned to a committee.
The League of Women Voters and the NAACP hosted a forum Wednesday night at the Champaign City Building with the Democratic candidates running for Champaign County circuit clerk and auditor in this month's primary.
Each set of candidates was given an hour to answer a series of questions, but they were not allowed to address each other with their responses. The auditor candidates went first.
Just about a year ago, a referendum to eliminate the office of auditor as an elected post was on the ballot. Voters turned it down, by a vote of 57 percent to 43 percent. The auditor's office has been controversial in Champaign County after email and phone records reported by the News Gazette showed current Auditor Tony Fabri spent little time at work.
The Democratic candidates in the race are George Danos, Kevin Sandefur, and Ben Carlson. They say that they want to bring confidence and transparency back to the office.
George Danos, whose financial background includes jobs in the healthcare and insurance industries, said he would concentrate on making sure county government is fiscally responsible.
"The county deserves a veritable watchdog in the office, one zealous about making sure that our tax dollars are well spent," Danos said. "One who is accessible to both the public and party officials."
Kevin Sandefur is an accounting information systems developer. He said if elected, he would see to it that county finance information gets posted online.
"Who else is going to step up and provide the information to the public in a way that is easy enough for them to understand, easy enough for them to obtain in order to provide the accountability and transparency and openness in government that we need?" Sandefur said.
Meanwhile, Ben Carlson, who works in the insurance industry, said he would like to make the office more efficient by updating technology.
"You know, we've got over 25 years of technology in the current office," Carlson said. "Are you going to keep the current accounting system? Are we going to discuss how to improve that?"
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination for auditor will face Deputy County Clerk John Farney in the general election.
Meanwhile, the Democratic candidates for circuit clerk also took part in the forum. With Linda Frank stepping down as Champaign County circuit clerk after nearly 20 years in that post, the three Democrats running for her seat in the March primary are Barb Wysocki, Lori Hansen, and Evelyn Underwood.
During the forum, the candidates agreed that making court information more accessible to the public should be a priority.
Barb Wysocki, who is a former Champaign County Board member, said part of that involves doing a better job training staff on using technology.
"When the same data has to be entered at two or three different points just to get information circulating or moving between offices, that to me is a human problem more than it is perhaps a technological problem," Wysocki said.
Lori Hansen, who is a law librarian for the Champaign County Circuit Court, said she also wants to find ways to improve services through the use of technology. She said computer stations should be installed in the lobby of the courthouse, so that the public can print out forms before a court appearance.
"Access to justice requires access to information, and information is power," Hansen said. "I want to give the information and power to the people who use the circuit clerk's office."
Hansen added that she would like to keep the self-help desk at the courthouse open, which had briefly closed because of budgetary reasons.
Evelyn Underwood, who is a former member of the Urbana Education Association, agreed that maintaining the self-help desk is a good idea. Underwood said she would also like to see more people serve on juries.
"I can't make them serve, but I would like to encourage them to serve on juries," Underwood said. "It will bring about justice if we have more people of color serving on the juries."
The circuit clerk candidate who wins the primary will face off against Republican Stephanie Holderfield, who currently sits on the county board.
The primary election is set for March 20, 2012.
(Photos by Sean Powers/WILL)
A Chicago man was charged Tuesday of computer hacking in collaboration with five other people aligned with the activist group Anonymous.
Federal prosecutors accuse Jeremy Hammond of stealing the credit card information of nearly 60,000 clients of Strategic Forecasting Inc. (Startfor), a global intelligence firm. Prosecutors say Hammond went by the name "anarchaos," among other online aliases.
A federal complaint alleges Hammond posted that information on a file sharing website resulting in at least $700,000 worth of unauthorized charges. The complaint also said Hammond helped obtain emails from Stratfor employees and put them on certain Internet websites.
The whistleblower website, Wikileaks started publishing emails from Stratfor in February. The website says it has nearly 5 million emails obtained from that company. It's not completely clear whether those emails are the ones prosecutors allege Hammond obtained by hacking into Stratfor's servers.
Hammond appeared in federal court in Chicago on Tuesday after being arrested the night before. He will be transferred to New York to stand trial.
Attorney Jim Fennerty represented Hammond in his initial Chicago court appearance. Fennerty also represented Hammond about two years ago when he was arrested for protesting at a Neo-Nazi gathering. He also confirmed Hammond had been detained for his opposition to Chicago's bid to host the Olympic Games, though Fennerty didn't represent Hammond in that case. Fennerty said he knows Hammond through his activism in Chicago.
"I like the guy. Maybe he does things I wouldn't do," Fennerty said.
Hammond is charged with three federal counts and faces a possible maximum sentence of 10 years for each of those counts.
"He does take them [the charges] very seriously. As you saw him today he looks kinda like - somebody said he looked kinda shell-shocked," Fennerty told reporters Tuesday.
Another four hackers were charged with similar counts in an indictment unsealed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court. A fifth hacker, Hector Xavier Monsegur, pleaded guilty last August. Monsegur is described in court papers as the ring-leader of the Anonymous sub-group LulzSec. Federal agents said Monsegur cooperated with the FBI in their investigation.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn weighed in on embattled University of Illinois President Michael Hogan.
Earlier this week, trustees told the president in a closed-door meeting that he has to repair a fractured relationship with faculty. More than a hundred influential faculty members have called on Hogan to resign.
Speaking on Tuesday in Chicago, Gov. Quinn said he has faith in the Board of Trustees, but when asked by a reporter if he "has confidence in President Hogan," the governor simply responded that he gets along well with him.
"I know Mike," Quinn said. "I enjoyed working with his predecessor...Mike Hogan, he's an easygoing fellow."
Quinn added that he believes everyone at the U of I should get along.
"My number one interest when it comes to the University of Illinois are the students," Quinn said. "I think they come first."
As governor, Quinn has a seat on the Board of Trustees, but doesn't regularly attend meetings and wasn't at Monday's session.
Board Chair Chris Kennedy said that trustees will review Hogan's job performance over the next couple of months. Meanwhile, the board is scheduled to meet on the Urbana campus next week.
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