Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 18, 2011

Cherry Orchard Landlords Guilty of Violating Health Ordinance

The landlords who operate the Cherry Orchard Village apartments have been found guilty of failing to legally connect sewer and septic systems for six out of their eight apartment buildings.

Champaign County Presiding Judge John Kennedy fined Bernard and Eduardo Ramos more than $54,000. They must pay $100 per day for 379 days for the unlawful discharge of sewage, $100 per day for 160 days for renting out the property during the health code violation; and $200 for not having a proper construction permit and license when they tried to repair the sewage and septic systems.

The Ramoses have 180 days to pay the fines. They are also barred from accepting tenants until the sewage problems are addressed.

Cherry Orchard has traditionally been a destination for migrant workers who come to the area during warmer months. Julie Pryde, the administrator with the Champaign Urbana Public Health District, said the ruling couldn't have come at a better time.

"I was just getting extremely nervous that this was taking so long because summer was getting closer and closer," Pryde said. "We know from history that the place would be completely filled up by then."

The Ramoses have owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County and have faced hundreds of code violations.

Last year, the County amended its nuisance ordinance because of the severity of conditions at Cherry Orchard. The modified ordinance includes a dozen criteria that a building must follow to be considered safe, including access to clean drinking water, plumbing that meets state health codes, and not using extension cords to provide power to a dwelling unit.

Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said many of the conditions outlined in the amended ordinance exist at Cherry Orchard. Hall said his department submitted a complaint with the Champaign County State's Attorney's office under the amended nuisance ordinance to take aim at structural problems that he says exist at Cherry Orchard.

"Well, if there aren't any people living there now, there will someday," Hall said. "And at that point, I would imagine the situation would be even worse by then. If no one lives in a building, it only continues to deteriorate more. It doesn't stop deteriorating just because no one lives there.

Champaign County Assistant State's Attorney Christina Papavasiliou said her office would only move forward with the nuisance complaint if the buildings on the Cherry Orchard property aren't repaired and tenants continue living there.

"If people do occupy the premises again, we have another complaint to file," Papavasiliou said.

The Ramoses immediately filed an appeal following Monday's court ruling.

(Photo courtesy of Julie Pryde)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 18, 2011

Prosecutors Rip into Blagojevich’s Public Comments

Federal prosecutors Monday ripped into public comments made by Rod Blagojevich. That comes two days before the former Illinois governor's corruption re-trial begins.

Blagojevich's comments to the media have centered around him saying, "Play all the tapes. Play all the tapes."

The former governor has said that playing all the secret phone conversations recorded by the FBI would show he's innocent and the fact that they aren't all played for jurors is a conspiracy by the prosecutors.

Prosecutors have mostly stuck to the legal issues in court, but U.S. Attorney Reid Schar let loose Monday, telling the judge that Blagojevich's talking points are lies. It's the judge who decides which tapes to play, not the government.

Judge James Zagel, for his part, told the court it would be wise for Blagojevich to restrain himself, saying he could overstep the line if he hasn't done so already. The judge said his comments should be considered a "red flag" for the defense to get their client in line.

Blagojevich's defense attorneys left court without talking to reporters; a rarity for them.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 15, 2011

Ruling Expected Monday in Cherry Orchard Case

The bench trial of Cherry Orchard Village landlords Bernard and Eduardo Ramos continued Friday afternoon in Champaign County Court.

The Ramoses are accused of failing to legally connect sewer and septic systems for six out of their eight apartment buildings on the property, located right outside of Rantoul. The apartment complex has traditionally housed many migrant workers.

The landlords have pledged to take responsibility for the property, promising to have the six apartment buildings that are in violation of the county's health ordinance re-opened by this summer.

There is typically an uptick in occupancy at the apartment complex during the warmer months due to an influx of migrant workers to the area. A 2007 migrant camp license application for the property reports there are at least 48 family rental units at Cherry Orchard.

Champaign County prosecutor Christina Papavasiliou is pushing for an injunction that would prevent people from living in the apartment buildings until the sewage problems are fixed.

"The injunction would be a cautionary measure," Papavasiliou explained during Friday's hearing. "It would do no harm to the defendants."

The prosecution is seeking $550 in restitution for expenses incurred by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District on this case.

Though occupancy at the property is unknown, public health officials estimate at least eight single men continue to live there and have noted several cars parked outside apartment buildings. Papavasiliou said she wants the Ramoses to be fined for making the property available to tenants during the ongoing violation, but she said she is not sure that count will hold up in court.

"It's just so hard to prove that people were living there," she said. "Because these are all migrant workers...I just didn't get a hold of anyone willing to come forward."

Earlier in the week, Bernard said he and his father should not get blamed for the sewage and septic issue since the Bank of Rantoul owned the property when state health inspectors first noticed a problem in 2007.

"We got blamed for things other people did," Bernard said. "If anything was done to the property, we have nothing to do with it."

The property is currently owned by Bernard's sister, Evelyn.

Bernard and Eduardo could each face a one-time fine of $1,000 for attempting to repair the septic systems without proper permits and licenses. Taking the stand Friday and acting as his own attorney, Eduardo defended his actions and the actions of his son, Bernard, for trying to fix the property in 2007 when they first noticed sewage seeping from a septic system.

"I do not own any license," Eduardo admitted. "When we have a case of an emergency like that, we can't just wait and proceed. Every good citizen should take care of the people around us."

Papavasiliou stated that the Ramoses could have caused more damage by trying to fix the property without proper training.

During the trial, the Ramoses have tried to distance themselves as managers and owners of Cherry Orchard. Papavasiliou said under the law, they are obligated to maintain the property, which she said they have neglected to do.

"The defendants have based a large part of their testimony that they're not owners of the property," Papavasiliou said. "There's no grandfather clause for septic systems, regardless of how they found the property when they became owners."

The Ramoses have owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County, and have faced hundreds of code violations. Several of these properties, including Cherry Orchard, have been under foreclosure, according to the Champaign County Recorder's Office.

The Ramoses ignored a request for comment after Friday's hearing. In a 2009 interview with CU-CitizenAccess.org, Bernard Ramos said city housing inspectors have targeted him because he is Hispanic and rents to illegal immigrants. He said his financial problems were due to the decline in the economy and unemployment, which affected his tenants' ability to pay rent.

Presiding Judge John Kennedy said he will issue a ruling Monday, April 18 at 11:00 AM.

(Photo courtesy of Julie Pryde)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 14, 2011

U of I Abraham Lincoln Bust Theft Possibly Solved

Mailings to the University of Illinois shed new light on what may have occurred when a bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln went missing more than 30 years ago.

The bust disappeared from Lincoln Hall in October 1979, but turned up a couple days later when an anonymous phone call led officers to its location - a tree stump on the U of I's golf course. The case was never solved, but just recently the college of Liberal Arts and Sciences got a response when making reference to incident in its 2011 winter newsletter.

LAS spokesman Dave Evensen said in the package, an altered male voice on a CD recording denied reports that the bust was damaged during the theft. He said this person went through great lengths to hide identity, with a fake name and address.

"This guy - he called himself the founder of the Statue Liberation Society," Evesen said. "And they were trying to find a way to make an impact on campus, and make these demands. And he recalled how they had stolen the Lincoln bust."

A few years later, Evensen said the group took credit for the 1982 theft and return of the bust of Lloyd Morey, a former U of I president and comptroller. It sought demands ranging from the enforcement of bike paths on campus, better dorm food... and better building security measures.

Evenson said LAS went to U of I police with the package, who said the case was closed since it went beyond the statute of limitations. The restored Lincoln bust is in the Spurlock Museum now, but will be back in Lincoln Hall once it reopens following extensive renovation work. The bust was created by Hermon Atkins MacNeil in 1928.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 14, 2011

Judge Denies Request to See Obama Interview Notes

The judge presiding over former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's upcoming retrial has rejected a request from defense attorneys to let them see summaries of any FBI interviews with President Barack Obama.

Among the charges Blagojevich faces is that he sought to sell or trade an appointment to Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job. Obama has never been accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

Judge James Zagel said at a Thursday status hearing he's read the summaries and nothing in them is relevant to Blagojevich's defense.

Zagel denied a similar request before Blagojevich's first trial. The retrial is set to start Wednesday.

Zagel on Thursday also denied a request to delay the trial by several weeks to give defense attorneys more time to prepare.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 14, 2011

Urbana’s Mayor, Legislator, Work to Keep UI Police Training Facility Open

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said she believes her role on a state panel that sets training guidelines for police and correctional officers could help save a University of Illinois facility with the same purpose.

Prussing was named Tuesday by Governor Pat Quinn to the state's Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board. She said a top priority in the post is to find sustainable financing for the U of I's Police Training Institute.

Last fall, a faculty panel suggested the institute close by this December, saying there wasn't justification to spend the $900,000 annually to train officers on campus. Prussing said that created a backlash, and suggests the facility could be maintained in a fashion similar to an insurance fee enacted by the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the U of I.

"Which all makes sense because you train firefighters, and when they can do fire prevention, that affects the insurance industry," Prussing said. "So it all kind of ties together. I think something similar needs to be done for police. Because obviously, police play a vital role in making society livable for everybody."

Last fall, Mahomet House Republican Chapin Rose suggested a surcharge on those convicted of certain crimes could go to towards funding the Institute. He said a bill supporting that idea has generated more talk among area lawmakers this spring. The legislator said he has a long-term vision for the facility.

"If we're going to do PTI and keep it, I want it to be the best darn training academy in the world, " Rose said. "We should have other countries sending their police cadets and their police officers and their police leadership here to be trained."

The U of I is expected to make a formal pitch for sustaining the training center soon. Prussing met Wednesday with U of I Police Chief Barbara O'Connor and Interim Chancellor Robert Easter to discuss options.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 13, 2011

Blagojevich Defiant Before Trial

A defiant ex-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich says prosecutors are trying to prevent his lawyers from proving his innocence at his upcoming corruption retrial.

Blagojevich stood outside his house Wednesday declaring his innocence and blasting prosecutors for objecting in advance to lines of questioning the defense wants to pursue.

It was a virtual replay of what he did on the eve of his corruption trial last year. Blagojevich was convicted on just one of 24 counts - lying to the FBI.

Blagojevich's retrial begins next week. And neither prosecutors nor defense lawyers have given any indication they'd be willing to cut a plea deal that would render a trial unnecessary.

The 54-year-old faces 20 charges, including that he sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.

(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 13, 2011

Ill. House OKs Tougher Oversight of Group Homes

The beating death of a mentally disabled man living in a group home, and the disclosure that officials knew the home was unsafe, could lead to increased protection of people with disabilities.

The Illinois House voted 115-0 Wednesday to toughen oversight of group homes. Abuse allegations would trigger state reviews. New managers could be brought in to run unsafe homes. Employees would undergo periodic background checks. More inspection records and abuse reports would be available to the public.

The measure now goes to the Senate.

The legislation was inspired by the death of 42-year-old Paul McCann, who was beaten to death in January at a group home in Charleston.

Two of the home's employees have been charged with murder, accused of kicking and punching McCann for 45 minutes because he stole food. They have pleaded not guilty.

McCann "did not deserve to be beaten to death because he took a cookie without permission," Rep. Greg Harris, D-Chicago, told his fellow legislators. "Ladies and gentlemen, you heard me correctly. He was beaten to death by an employee of this home who was entrusted with his care because he took a cookie without permission."

Records obtained by The Associated Press show Illinois officials knew residents had been abused at the network of group homes that included McCann's facility.

Conditions at homes run by the nonprofit Graywood Foundation were "totally unacceptable," according to a 2009 memo an Illinois investigator wrote.

The memo was written almost a year after murder charges were filed against two employees in the 2008 death of Dustin Higgins, another resident who lived in a Graywood group home.

The state eventually stopped them from admitting new residents, but the families of people already living at the homes say they had no idea about the problems.

Illinois now has 9,300 adults with developmental disabilities living in group homes, family homes and apartments run by more than 200 community agencies.

The group homes, known as CILAs for "community integrated living arrangements," are likely to be used more widely in Illinois after a lawsuit over the civil rights of adults with disabilities.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 13, 2011

Newspaper: Unseal Blagojevich filings

A newspaper wants the judge in former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich's upcoming retrial to order that government and defense lawyers make recently sealed filings public.

Attorneys for the Chicago Tribune have filed a motion in U.S. District Court making that request. It cites constitutional rights to access the information.

Blagojevich's second corruption trial is set to start next Wednesday. And both sides have filed more than a dozen sealed motions or sealed responses to motions in recent months. They've also filed many motions that aren't sealed.

The Tribune's late Tuesday motion says both sides have "indiscriminately filed documents wholly under seal, without overcoming the strong presumption of public access.''

Judge James Zagel could rule on the matter as soon as Thursday at a scheduled status hearing in the case.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 12, 2011

Blagojevich Prosecutors Ask to Bar Wiretap Argument

Prosecutors in Rod Blagojevich's corruption case have asked a judge to bar defense attorneys from arguing at the former Illinois governor's upcoming retrial that playing all the hundreds of hours of secret FBI recordings would prove his innocence.

Blagojevich and his lawyers have complained for years that the government took the recordings out of context by playing on a small percentage of them. They argue that heard in their entirety the recordings would demonstrate Blagojevich never did anything illegal.

But in a 25-page motion, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, government attorneys say there are no grounds to suggest either that unplayed tapes would help exonerate Blagojevich or that prosecutors intentionally selected recordings that lacked necessary context.

"The court has also made clear that the court, rather than the government, is the final arbiter of what is, and what is not, presented to the jury," the motion says. "Yet the defense has continued to suggest otherwise."

Blagojevich faces 20 charges, including that he sought to exchange an appointment to President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job. His first trial ended last year with jurors agreeing on just one count _ convicting Blagojevich of lying to the FBI.

Wiretap recordings were at the heart of the prosecution's case at the first trial and will be just as crucial at the second, which is set to begin April 20.

One of Blagojevich's attorneys, Sheldon Sorosky, declined to immediately comment on the motion Tuesday, saying attorneys expected to respond later.


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