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.
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.
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.
An Indiana House committee is taking up a bill that would require nurses, doctors, dentists and other medical workers to pay for a national criminal background check when applying for a state license.
Bill sponsor Republican Sen. Patricia Miller of Indianapolis says current policy relies on the honesty of health workers to accurately report convictions when applying for licenses. About 198,000 people are currently licensed or certified in one of the 20 professions specified in the bill.
An Indianapolis Star investigation last year found several instances in which nurses failed to report arrests or convictions on their license renewal applications without the nursing board knowing about the incidents. The bill allows boards to require people seeking license renewals to submit to a national background check.
The bench trial of two Champaign County landlords continued Monday morning.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos run the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, located outside of Rantoul in an unincorporated part of Champaign County. Cherry Orchard has been under scrutiny for the last three and a half years ever since state health inspectors discovered raw sewage seeping into nearby farmland. Champaign County officials say six out of eight apartment buildings on the property are in violation of the local health ordinance.
Acting as his own attorney and speaking through a translator, Eduardo Ramos called one witness during Monday's hearing - his son, Bernard.
Eduardo asked Bernard if it is possible to re-open the affected apartment buildings without clearance from a government agency.
"We have to fix them first before we open them," Bernard replied.
Bernard said he will 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.
Bernard said he and his father shouldn't get blamed for the sewage and septic issue since the Bank of Rantoul owned the property when health inspectors first noticed a problem in 2007.
"We got blamed for things other people did," Ramos 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.
Assistant State's Attorney Christina Papavasiliou says under the law, the Ramoses have a duty to maintain the property, which she says they have neglected to do.
"If you exercise possession or control," Papavasiliou explained. "Even as a landlord or in any capacity, you can be accountable under the ordinance."
Papavasiliou is pushing for an injunction that would prevent people from living in the apartment complex until the sewage problems are fixed. She is asking presiding Judge John Kennedy to fine the Ramoses $500 a day until the sewage and septic systems are fixed, and another $500 for everyday it takes them to vacate remaining tenants.
She says tenants are still living in buildings that are not up to code. 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.
During Monday's trial, the Ramoses requested a motion of continuance, saying they needed 14 days to subpoena an official with the Illinois Department of Public Health who works on issuing licenses to house migrant workers. Judge Kennedy rejected the motion, calling the testimony of the official "marginal at best."
Once the request was denied, Eduardo Ramos filed a motion of prejudice against Kennedy.
"I have been a lawyer for many, many years and have not seen this type of verbal violence before," Eduardo said.
Eduardo explained he had studied law in his native Bolivia, but not in the United States.
Another judge, Jeff Ford, was brought in to take up the prejudice claim, and that motion was also denied.
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 the trial. 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.
The prosecution rested its case last Wednesday. The trial will resume Friday, April 15 at 2:30 PM.
(Photo courtesy of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District)
The U.S. government's new system to replace the five color-coded terror alerts will have two levels of warnings - elevated and imminent - that will be relayed to the public only under certain circumstances for limited periods of time, sometimes using Facebook and Twitter, according to a draft Homeland Security Department plan obtained by The Associated Press.
Some terror warnings could be withheld from the public entirely if announcing a threat would risk exposing an intelligence operation or an ongoing investigation, according to the government's confidential plan.
Like a gallon of milk, the new terror warnings will each come with a stamped expiration date.
The 19-page document, marked "for official use only" and dated April 1, describes the step-by-step process that would occur behind the scenes when the government believes terrorists might be threatening Americans. It describes the sequence of notifying members of Congress, then counterterrorism officials in states and cities and then governors and mayors and, ultimately, the public. It specifies even details about how many minutes U.S. officials can wait before organizing urgent conference calls among themselves to discuss pending threats. It places the Homeland Security secretary, currently Janet Napolitano, in charge of the so-called National Terrorism Advisory System.
The new terror alerts would also be published online using Facebook and Twitter "when appropriate," the plan said, but only after federal, state and local government leaders have already been notified. The new system is expected to be in place by April 27.
The government has always struggled with how much information it can share with the public about specific threats, sometimes over fears it would reveal classified intelligence or law enforcement efforts to disrupt an unfolding plot. But the color warnings that became one of the government's most visible anti-terrorism programs since the September 2001 attacks were criticized as too vague to be useful and became fodder for late-night talk shows.
The new advisory system is designed to be easier to understand and more specific, but it's impossible to know how often the public will receive these warnings. The message will always depend on the threat and the intelligence behind it.
For example, if there is a specific threat that terrorists were looking to hide explosives in backpacks around U.S. airports, the government might issue a public warning that would be announced in airports telling travelers to remain vigilant and report any unattended backpacks or other suspicious activity to authorities.
If the intelligence community believes a terror threat is so serious that an alert should be issued, the warning would offer specific information for specific audiences. The Homeland Security secretary would make the final decision on whether to issue an alert and to whom - sometimes just to law enforcement and other times to the public.
According to the draft plan, an "elevated" alert would warn of a credible threat against the U.S. It would not likely specify timing or targets, but it could reveal terrorist trends that intelligence officials believe should be shared in order to prevent an attack. That alert would expire after no more than 30 days but could be extended.
An "imminent" alert would warn about a credible, specific and impending terrorist threat or an on-going attack against the U.S. That alert would expire after no more than seven days but could be extended.
There hasn't been a change in the color warnings since 2006, despite an uptick in attempted attacks and terror plots against the U.S. That's because the counterterrorism community has found other ways to notify relevant people about a particular threat. In December 2010, intelligence officials learned that a terrorist organization was looking to use insulated beverage containers to hide explosives. That information was relayed to the aviation industry to be watchful. Less formal warnings like that will continue under the new system.
In the past, there was no established system for determining whether to raise or lower the threat level, said James Carafano, a national security expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. In part because of this, travelers heard about nonspecific orange threats in airports since August 2006 when the government responded to an al-Qaida plot to detonate liquid explosive bombs hidden in soft drink bottles on aircraft bound for the United States and Canada.
While there was coordination among U.S. counterterrorism officials about the threat, "It was pretty much kind of a gut call," said Carafano, who was on a 2009 advisory committee to review the color alerts and suggest ways to improve them.
According to the draft plan, before an official alert is issued, there is a multi-step process that must be followed, starting with intelligence sharing among multiple federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, the National Counterterrorism Center and the White House. If the threat is considered serious enough, a Homeland Security official will call for a meeting of a special counterterrorism advisory board. That board would be expected to meet within 30 minutes of being called, and if it's decided an alert is necessary, it would need to be issued within two hours.
"The plan is not yet final, as we will continue to meet and exercise with our partners to finalize a plan that meets everyone's needs," Homeland Security spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said.
A judge in Indianapolis says he'll decide Thursday whether or not Democrats can proceed with their lawsuit to disqualify Republican Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White from holding office.
Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg heard arguments from both sides Wednesday.
Democrats contend state law requires the runner-up in November's election, Vop Osili, to take office if Rosenberg rules that White was ineligible to run for secretary of state last year. Their lawsuit claims the state recount commission improperly dismissed their challenge to his election in December.
A grand jury separately indicted White in March on voter fraud and other charges alleging he voted in last May's Republican primary after moving out of his ex-wife's home and the town council district he represented. He would have to resign if convicted.
(With reporting from CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey)
The prosecution rested its case Wednesday against the landlords of the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, located outside of Rantoul.
Bernard and Eduardo Ramos appeared in Champaign County Court for a bench trial. They are accused of failing to connect sewer and septic systems for six out of eight apartment buildings on the Cherry Orchard property.
Though occupancy at the property is unknown, public health officials estimated at least eight single men continue to live there and have noted several cars parked outside apartment buildings.
Occupancy at the complex typically increases in the warmer months due to an influx of migrant workers to the area. The complex has at least 48 family rental units, according to a 2007 migrant camp license application for the property.
The Ramoses are still not legally barred from renting the place out.
This is an ongoing concern of health officials, who helped relocate about a dozen tenants earlier this year after the Ramoses cut power and water to the property for about three weeks in December.
"It was a nightmare to get those families into apartments and there was just about every agency in town working on this," Pryde said. "If (Ramos) brings in a bunch more people up here and rents them and the judge throws them out then we have a bigger problem and fewer apartments out there to put people into.
"In reality unless the law and the ordinances give us any authority to do anything, there's really only so much you can do. We don't have authority to go in and shut them down," Pryde said.
Bernard Ramos declined comment for this story. Bernard and Eduardo have made previous agreements during the past year to vacate the property and legally repair the sewer system, but they have yet to follow through, public health officials said.
"That's what upsets me the most is we know there are problems ... we know there's issues with safety up there for people and there's nothing we can do about it," Pryde said.
Pryde said she helped one former tenant, Hermelinda Cruz, 51, find a new place to live. Cruz lived at Cherry Orchard for nearly two years after she and her husband separated.
Cruz and her family moved to Rantoul in 2003 from Rio Grande, Texas, in search of better jobs and better education.
For the past eight years, Cruz worked for agricultural companies like Syngenta and Pioneer between April and December.
After she and her husband separated, Cruz and her four children needed a place to live, and she found Cherry Orchard.
"At first I thought it was good because it was cheap and I wasn't working," Cruz said, speaking through her 14-year-old daughter, who interpreted for this interview.
Cruz said Bernard Ramos would allow her to pay the monthly $500 rent week by week.
He even lent her extra beds to use.
"When we first went to Cherry Orchard, it was tough," Cruz said. I had "no cars, no way to move. I had to start from the bottom up. I do appreciate Bernard because he let us borrow beds, stove (and) refrigerator. When I first moved to Cherry Orchard, I didn't have anything like that."
But they soon discovered mold on the walls and water dripping in from the ceiling, so Ramos moved them to another unit, which didn't prove to be much better.
The sewer would often back up into her shower, Cruz said, sometimes up to three days.
When the migrant workers would move in during the summer, Ramos would shut off the water for 12 hours at a time on a weekly basis, she said.
Moving out wasn't an option for Cruz because she had no place to go that would allow her to pay the rent by the week.
It wasn't until she received assistance from the health department, that Cruz and her family were able to move.
In February, Cruz and her four children found a three-bedroom apartment for $450 a month.
"I like it here because you don't see no cockroaches on the wall or hear the mice at nighttime," Cruz said.
Bernard Ramos and his family owned more than 30 properties in Champaign County; however, several are now or have been under foreclosure during the past few years - with at least seven sold in sheriff's auctions since 2008, according to an analysis of Champaign County Recorder's Office documents.
Their sole property near Rantoul, Cherry Orchard Apartments, is also currently under foreclosure, according to documents on file with the Champaign County Recorder's Office.
The father-son landlord team has also faced hundreds of code violations from the City of Champaign on rental property they own that have also garnered repeated condemnations.
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.
"One of the biggest problems is I grew so big so fast, now I want to get smaller," Bernard Ramos said in 2009.
In court documents, Ramos cited 13 apartment units that were condemned under the management of one bank and alleged that the bank's property manager was intentionally "sabotaging" his properties so the agent could buy them at a lower price.
"My goal is to get my properties back and don't make the same mistakes as before," Ramos said in a 2009 interview.
Last year, Champaign County amended its nuisance property ordinances based on conditions at Cherry Orchard.
Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said his department forwarded its complaint to the Champaign County State's Attorney's Office for prosecution under the amended ordinances after the Ramoses failed to bring the property up to the new county codes.
Once filed, it will bring the number of county court cases against Cherry Orchard up to two.
"The nuisance ordinance was amended in the past year to include several more specific kinds of dangerous structures," Hall said. "Several of those new definitions of dangerous structures exist or at least we have evidence they exist at the Cherry Orchard apartments."
Hall said two notices have been sent to Bernard Ramos detailing the violations under the amended nuisance ordinances, which carry a fine between $100 and $500 per day.
"This case is a long way from being resolved and those buildings are a long way from being repaired," Hall said.
"I believe, in total, both cases can indicate that these buildings are a real safety hazard but I don't know how that's going to be addressed in court," he said.
"Had this have happened in Champaign or Urbana, the city can go in and take care of it. There's codes that they work under and they could take care of it. Had it had happened in Rantoul, they could have gone in and taken care of it, but because it was in an unincorporated part of the county, no one really had authority over it except for Champaign County Zoning and Planning, and they didn't have any ordinance," Pryde said.
With the prosecution resting its case, Pryde says Bernard will present his defense Monday at 9 AM at the Champaign County Courthouse.