Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 05, 2011

Urbana Resident’s Humanitarian Trip to Gaza Strip Put on Hold

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

An Urbana resident's humanitarian trip to the Gaza Strip has been put at a standstill.

Robert Naiman works for the advocacy group, Just Foreign Policy. He is traveling with about 50 other Americans to protest an Israeli-imposed naval blockade on Gaza.

But on Friday, Greek authorities intercepted the U.S. ship, and arrested its captain for setting sail without permission and allegedly endangering the other passengers.

Speaking in Athens on Tuesday morning, Naiman said the Greek government released the ship's captain, John Klusmire, earlier in the day. Klusmire had attempted to leave a port Friday near Piraeus, Greece, in defiance of a Greek ban on the flotilla of boats leaving port. He appeared in court Tuesday handcuffed and under police escort.

"No trial date has been set and we expect the charges to be dropped," one of his lawyers, Manolis Stephanakis, said after the hearing. "We presented a very strong case and we don't need to call any more witnesses to testify."

The captain himself appeared relieved after his deposition, and was cheered on by 30 fellow activists chanting "We love John."

"This is a much better outcome than I anticipated," Klusmire said.

Up to 400 international activists had been due to sail last week to Gaza aboard 10 ships leaving from Greece to protest the naval blockade.

Greece has banned all boats participating in the Gaza flotilla from leaving port, citing security concerns after a similar flotilla last year was raided by Israeli forces, leaving nine activists on a Turkish boat dead. The Greek foreign ministry has offered to deliver the humanitarian aid the activists want to take to Gaza.

Despite Klusmire's release, Naiman said the humanitarian trip has faced another setback with Greek government officials seizing Klusmire's Gaza-bound ship.

"Whether we can go to Gaza I think is now a question of our boat," Naiman said. "Our boat is essentially under arrest by the Greek authorities. It's tied at a military dock in Piraeus. I don't think as of now the Greek authorities will allow it to leave."

Naiman added that even if his hopes to make it to Gaza are dashed, he said he is grateful for being able to "communicate a message of solidarity to the people of Gaza, and to speak to international public opinion about the blockade and the denial of freedom."

The Israeli government has maintained the naval blockade since 2007 to weaken the militant group Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory.

(AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 04, 2011

Blago Retrial Not Last Chapter in Legal Saga

There's no doubt Rod Blagojevich's recently ended retrial was the marquee event in the federal investigation into corruption surrounding the former Illinois governor's administration.

But the legal saga that stretches back nearly a decade isn't quite at an end.

The last big trial in the case is of businessman William Cellini. His trial on charges he plotted to shake down a Hollywood movie producer for a campaign contribution for Blagojevich is scheduled to start in October.

The 76-year-old has pleaded not guilty.

Political observer Paul Green, who teaches politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago, says the trial could give the public another peek at the underbelly of state politics.

Cellini is a Springfield Republican once known as "The Pope'' Illinois politics for the influence he wielded. He raised money for both fellow Republicans and Democrats, like Blagojevich.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - July 02, 2011

Blagojevich Likely to Face Menial Work in Prison

An eight-digit number affixed to his prison clothes. A job scrubbing toilets or mopping floors at 12 cents an hour. His incessant jogging confined to a prison yard. Most painful of all, restricted visits from his wife and two daughters.

After sentencing for his conviction on federal corruption charges, that is likely to be the new life for impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is more accustomed to fancy suits, a doting staff and a comfortable home in a leafy Chicago neighborhood.

Most legal experts estimate that Blagojevich, 54, will get close to a 10-year sentence, though technically he faces up to 300 years after he was convicted Monday of 17 of 20 counts at his retrial. The convictions include attempted extortion for trying to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat that Barack Obama vacated to become president.

One fellow Illinois politician who served time in federal prison on corruption charges, former Chicago city clerk Jim Laski, says Blagojevich can't begin to fathom how hard prison will be.

"I missed my kids' birthdays, graduations ... you don't ever see children playing, there's a sense of total isolation, you're subject to body-cavity searches - it's horrible!" said the 57-year-old Laski, a father of three. "And I was only in two years."

Once he walks through the prison doors, no one will care that Blagojevich was once governor or appeared in 2010 on the reality television show "Celebrity Apprentice," Laski and others said.

"If he thinks he'll come in and get special treatment, he's in for a rude surprise," said Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago. "If you come in with that attitude, prison guards and other inmates will go out of their way to break you."

But a chilly reception may not deter Blagojevich's non-stop campaigning. "I still see him going around acting jovial, shaking hands," Turner said. "I bet he knows everybody's name in a month."

No sentencing date has been set yet for Blagojevich, though it should happen by year's end. A decision on what prison Blagojevich will go to won't be made until weeks after a sentence is imposed, but it could very well be the same facility in Terre Haute, Ind., that houses another former Illinois governor, George Ryan. Lawyers will likely appeal Blagojevich's convictions, but appeals on federal convictions rarely prevail.

What may weigh most on Blagojevich's mind is the welfare of his daughters - Amy, 14, and Annie, 8. If he does spend a decade or more imprisoned, he could miss many landmarks of their lives, including their high school and college graduations.

"There's always a sense of precariousness because a child whose parent has gone wonders, 'What else in my life can be taken away?'" said Mindy Clark, spokeswoman for Oregon-based Children's Justice Alliance, which helps families of imprisoned relatives.

Laski said his kids faced teasing at school. "One kid came up to my boys when I was in prison and said, 'At least my dad is home for Christmas - and your dad is in jail,'" he said.

While Blagojevich would go to a prison with minimal security, possibly with just a simple fence around it, his routine will be highly regimented, including limits on family visits and phone calls.

A guidebook for another federal prison in Oxford, Wis., where Blagojevich could also go, says inmates get 300 minutes a month on the phone, or about 10 minutes a day. Cell phones are strictly prohibited. Prisoners, all of whom share rooms, wake at 6:00 a.m. and are subject to head counts half a dozen times a day.

Blagojevich, an avid jogger who has posted impressive times in several marathons, will also have to settle for running in circles on a prison track or around a yard.

There's some good news in the guidebook for Blagojevich, famously fastidious about keeping every strand of his generous locks in place: He won't have to shave off his trademark hair, though fully maintaining it out of reach of his usual stylist may pose challenges.

"Your hair may be worn in any style and length you wish," the guidebook says.

Inmates also must work an 8-hour-a-day job, starting at 12 cents an hour; most new prisoners start in custodial work, explained Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Blagojevich's predecessor, Ryan, a Republican, is serving 6 1/2 years in prison on multiple corruption charges and is expected to be freed in 2013. That means Blagojevich, a Democrat, and Ryan could be serving time simultaneously.

Blagojevich's imprisonment could pose financial hardships for his family. During his trial and retrial, he already complained of being broke, and in prison he won't be able to contribute any meaningful revenue to his family, according to prison rules. Earning money from writing books or articles is forbidden.

Dick Mell, an influential alderman in Chicago and his wife Patti's father, could be expected to lend his daughter and grandchildren a helping hand. Patti Blagojevich's sister, Deb Mell, is a state legislator.

Another concern is that someone like Blagojevich could be targeted by other inmates who might think his celebrity means he has access to money, Turner said. "They need to find him a place where no one will try to do anything to him," the former prosecutor said.

Blagojevich hasn't spoken at any length about prison. When asked in an interview before his retrial about whether he dwelled on the prospect of being locked up for years, he answered: "No. I don't let myself go there."

Laski said he ran into Blagojevich in a federal court restroom before his retrial ended and tried to convey how crushing the prison experience is. Blagojevich, he said, looked shocked.

"I told him the worst day in my life, bar none, was the day I said goodbye to my children and headed off to prison," he said. "I said, 'Rod, you better pray you don't have to go through that.'"

(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato, File)


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 01, 2011

AFSCME Urges Champaign to Preserve Police Funding

With about 50 jobs eliminated in Champaign as part of a round of budget cuts over the last few years, AFSCME local 31 says some of those positions should be saved - especially as city department heads and the city manager are poised to receive a two percent pay hike.

One area impacted by recent budget cuts is the Champaign Police Department, which could lose a few positions that would keep the front desk from staying open overnight. At a time when administrator salaries are going up, AFSCME spokesperson Michael Wilmore said the city should do more to keep the front desk open 24 hours a day.

"We are trying to draw attention to the fact that they're giving themselves raises," Wilmore said. "It is really insulting to the workers and to the citizens of Champaign."

The Champaign City Council considered a liquor tax in June to restore funding for three of the department's front desk positions and one of its record services positions, but that measure failed to get enough support.

There are currently two out of three three positions at the police department's front desk that are vacant. No changes in the status of these jobs will occur until the Champaign City Council provides more direction, which means for now, the two vacated positions will not be filled and the third position will not be eliminated. The city council is expected to discuss potential new sources of revenue and the future of those jobs during its July 12th meeting.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said he is hopeful that the city will find a way to keep the front desk staffed all the time.

"Those positions are vital to the support of the police staff," Gerard said. "I voted against not giving the city manager a raise not because I didn't think he deserved it, but because from a leadership standpoint in these budgetary times, we need to have shared responsibility."

City Manager Steve Carter, whose salary will go up by two percent, defended the pay increases for non-union employees. Carter has not received a pay raise for the last couple of years. He noted many of the other non-union workers who are expected to make more money this year also did not get a raise last year.

"If there has been a group of employees that have scarified - if you will - recognizing the budget condition, it has been the non-union employees," Carter said. "All the union employees, including AFSCME, have received salary increases all along based on contracts, some in existence and some negotiated."

Union workers from the Fraternal Order of Police and the Plumbers and Pipefitters saw their salaries go up last year, and continue to rise this year. However, no future pay raises have been budgeted for AFSCME workers since contract negations with the city are ongoing.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - July 01, 2011

Suspect Arrested in Champaign Homicide; Victim Identified

An arrest has been made in the fatal shooting of 26-year-old Nathan Barker of Champaign.

The United States Marshals Service worked with the Champaign Police Department to locate and arrest Keontae Campbell for First Degree Murder and Unlawful Possession of a Weapon.

Campbell was arrested inside a residence late Friday morning on the 7100 Block of Faris in Lawrence, Indiana. The Champaign Police Department said he did not resist arrest.

The homicide occurred early Friday morning at the intersection of Bradley and McKinley on Champaign's northwest side. Police were called to the intersection at 2:42 AM, where they found Barker with a gunshot wound. He was later pronounced dead at Carle Foundation Hospital.

An autopsy will be performed Friday afternoon.

Police say that in their initial investigation, they learned the shooting followed an altercation between Barker and Campbell, and it is believed the two knew each other.

The intersection of Bradley and McKinley was closed to traffic for the investigation. It reopened Friday morning at 7:10 AM.

If you have information about the shooting, contact Champaign Police at 217-351-4545, or to stay anonymous, contact Champaign County Crime Stoppers at 217-373-8477 (TIPS), or online at www.373tips.com, or by texting keyword "Tip397" plus the information to 274637 (CRIMES).


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 30, 2011

Illinois’ Ban on Capital Punishment to Take Effect

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Starting Friday, Illinois' ban on capital punishment will take effect, but advocates on both sides of the death penalty debate say their work is not done.

State lawmakers voted in January to abandon capital punishment, and Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation in March. That happened more than a decade after the state imposed a moratorium on executions out of concern that innocent people could be put to death by a justice system that had wrongly condemned 13 men.

Gov. Quinn also commuted the sentences of all 15 inmates remaining on death row who are now serving life sentences in prison with no hope of parole.

Fifteen other states have also abolished the death penalty.

With the law in place, it would seem that The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty could declare "mission accomplished." But the group's director, Jeremy Schroeder, said that is not the case.

"I wish I could tell you we're all retiring," Schroeder said. "But unfortunately there will always be some need for the Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty."

Schroeder admits his group is downsizing, and has considered changing its name to "the Coalition Against the Death Penalty." Schroeder said the key task going forward is to make sure the ban remains.

However, critics like State Representative Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst) are working to overturn it.

"I still believe, as studies do show, that the death penalty is a deterrent to these most heinous of crimes," Reboletti said.

Reboletti's legislation stalled in the House this past session, but he said he believes there is enough support for it to pass.

The Illinois Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty says it's poised to fight back legislation to overturn the ban.

Illinois has executed 12 men since 1977, when the death penalty was reinstated. The last execution was Andrew Kokoraleis on March 17, 1999. At the time, the average length of stay on death row was 13 years.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 29, 2011

Blagojevich Sentencing Still Not Scheduled

The corruption re-trial is over, and now former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich awaits his sentencing.

Blagojevich was found guilty Monday of 17 of the 20 counts charged against him. With all the counts added up, Blagojevich could face as much as 300 years in prison.

Attorney Joel Bertocchi is a former federal prosecutor. He said it is highly unlikely Blagojevich would face that severe of a sentence, but he said the fact that the ex-governor did not accept responsibility for the charges won't help either.

"Mr. Blagojevich, I think, may present an unusual case," Bertocchi said. "Not only did he go to trial, but he made an awful lot of public noise about not accepting responsibility for the charges that the government leveled against him."

Bertocchi said six to 11 years could be closer to what the judge may be considering. It is uncertain when Blagojevich will be sentenced.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 28, 2011

Blagojevich Likely to Lose State Pension

Convicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is likely to lose his $65,000 annual state pension.

Director of the General Assembly Retirement System Timothy Blair said according to state law, any elected official or public employee convicted of a felony committed on the job, is ineligible for retirement benefits.

"No other benefits would be payable," Blair said. "So that's happened several times, in most of the retirement systems. That would apply to people who are teachers, state employees, and of course members of the General Assembly Retirement System. And that's the provision that George Ryan was subject to."

Blair said employees like Ryan can get back contributions they made to their pensions. He said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office will be asked to make a recommendation on whether Blagojevich should lose his pension. Then the board will take a vote based on that opinion.

A spokeswoman for Madigan's office said the former governor must first be sentenced before the pension can be denied.

It is uncertain when he will be sentenced.

The 54-year-old Democrat could start collecting his state pension on his next birthday December tenth.

Blair said he hopes the pension board will have a ruling before that.

Blagojevich could get $15,000 a year in federal retirement for the years he served in Congress. He could start drawing his federal pension at age 62.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 28, 2011

Attorney: Ex-Ill. Gov. With Wife Before She Died

Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan was with his ailing wife as she was taken off a respirator and died at a Kankakee hospital.

That's according to former Gov. Jim Thompson. He tells WBBM-TV that Ryan was released from his prison in Terre Haute, Ind., to visit his wife. Thompson says the couple spent her final hours together.

Lura Lynn Ryan died Monday evening. She'd been diagnosed with lung cancer and hospitalized for apparent complications from chemotherapy.

Thompson says Ryan had been secretly released on four occasions since January to be with his wife of 55-years.

Court records show Ryan's attorneys petitioned an appellate court Friday to allow Ryan to leave the prison and visit his wife, but the court denied the request. Thompson says the prison warden allowed the visits.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 28, 2011

Inside Rod Blagojevich Jury Deliberations

After delivering their sweeping conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich Monday, jurors took a few minutes to talk to reporters.

They convicted Blagojevich on 17 of the 20 corruption charges. It is a vastly different outcome than the one reached by the first Blagojevich jury, which convicted on one minor count and was deadlocked on everything else. This second jury hopes their overwhelmingly guilty verdict sends a message to Illinois politicians.

In high-profile federal cases, court administrators will sometimes make a courtroom available where jurors can talk to reporters if they so choose. There is only one television camera and one microphone for radio stations, an attempt to make the whole experience less intimidating.

In Blagojevich's first trial, none of the jurors talked at court, and as a result reporters started tracking them down at their homes that evening. In an apparent attempt to avoid a repeat, Judge James Zagel seems to have suggested it might not be a bad idea for jurors to get it over with. All of them made themselves available for a 21 minute Q and A, and the forewoman even started with a prepared statement.

"As a jury, we have felt privileged to be part of our federal judicial system," she said.

The jurors spent nine days deliberating, but the forewoman, a retired church musician and liturgist, said it is not because they were arguing. She said they carefully went through each of the 20 counts.

"Throughout the process we were very respectful of each other's views and opinions, and as a result we feel confident we have reached a fair and just verdict," she said.

The jury found Blagojevich guilty on 17 counts of trying to use his office to enrich himself, but they still kind of liked him. Juror 103 (the court hasn't released the jurors names yet, but they're expected to do so Tuesday morning) spent a week listening to Blagojevich testify. She sat in the jury box in the front row, closest to the witness stand. As Blagojevich walked up to the stand he would often mouth or whisper a hello, or a "how ya doin" to her. He also jokingly rolled his eyes at her when attorneys were taking too long dealing with issues at sidebar.

Juror 103 said that connection "Made it, I wouldn't say it made it a bit harder but because he was personable it made it hard to separate that from what we actually had to do as jurors, you know, we had to put aside the fact that whether we liked him or didn't like him and just go by the evidence that was presented to us."

Another juror echoed the sentiment that Blagojevich is more than just a caricature.

"We know he's human, he has a family, and it was very difficult," the juror said. "There were many times we would talk and say, or I would say, here's all the evidence, and I'd come in thinking okay, he's not guilty and then all of a sudden, gosh darn you Rod, you did it again, I mean he proved beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty, so it was very difficult. I mean we, I really tried to just try to find everything I could to make him not guilty but the proof was there."

But not everyone was smitten by the former governor. One juror said she felt he was manipulative and an alternate juror said she felt Blagojevich could remember everything for his lawyers but then seemed to forget everything when the prosecutors were asking the questions.

In the end, the jurors agreed that Blagojevich committed crimes and they said that was made clear from the governor's phone calls, which were secretly recorded by the FBI. Jurors said the easiest counts to convict on included the allegations that Blagojevich tried to cash in on the ability to appoint Barack Obama's successor in the U.S. Senate. And they didn't buy the defense claim that Blagojevich was just talking and throwing around ideas.

"He was being tried on attempting and not committing the crime and when you say you're going to float an idea as opposed to asking someone to do it, that's where and there was several times where he said you know, do it, push that, get this done," one juror said. "I think that's where you cross the line of just floating an idea and actually doing it."

After talking to reporters for 21 minutes, a court employee brought the questioning to an end, and the jurors made their way to the basement of the federal court building and got into a 15-passenger van that took them to various train stations. A half dozen got out near Union Station and they hugged on the sidewalk outside the idling van. Two of the women were actually alternate jurors who came downtown just to hear the verdict. They didn't participate in deliberations, something they're still stewing about.

"You know, after you've been sitting through that for several weeks, I mean I had four notebooks full of notes, I was ready to deliberate and I knew what I wanted to say in deliberations, so unfortunately we never got that chance," juror 190 said. "But I will say I don't think I would have done anything differently than what they chose."

The two parted ways outside an entrance to Union Station, giving each other yet another hug. They said they loved each other and promised to see each other again, but were both anxious to catch their trains. Juror 190 was also anxious to finally talk to her family about the forbidden topic that has consumed her life since she was picked for jury service two months ago.

(AP Photo/Antonio Perez, Pool)

 


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