Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 25, 2011

Search on for Unbiased Jurors in Blagojevich Case

The judge and attorneys in Rod Blagojevich's corruption retrial on Monday were set to resume the daunting task of selecting jurors who can put aside what they've heard about the high-profile case and give the former Illinois governor a fair trial.

Judge James Zagel was expected to individually question up to 40 more people out of a pool of more than 100 potential jurors to assess their suitability. Each filled out a 38-page jury questionnaire as the retrial started last week.

The impeached governor's first trial ended last year with jurors deadlocked on all but one count of lying to the FBI. At the retrial, the 54-year-old still faces 20 charges, including accusations he sought to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.

The first day of individual questioning of would-be jurors on Thursday revealed most either held unfavorable views of politicians in general or of Blagojevich in particular. All had heard at least something about last year's trial.

Zagel spoke to 22 potential jurors Thursday and, by day's end, dismissed 11 on various grounds, including that weeks of jury duty would hit their families hard financially.

But he refused defense requests to send home several people who seemed biased against Blagojevich, including a retired auto shop owner who wrote that, "Based on news accounts, my personal bias is - he is guilty." Zagel said he accepted the man's assurances in court that he could set aside his preconceptions and focus solely on the evidence.

Those kept in the jury pool won't necessarily end up in the jury box because both sides retain the right to dismiss some jurors without providing the judge a reason. The defense can do so 13 times while the prosecution has nine peremptory challenges.

Jury selection is an inexact science. Blagojevich lawyers may in some cases prefer jurors with a dim view of politicians if it means they're more likely to accept a long-held defense argument: that the twice-elected governor was merely engaged in wheeling and dealing that - while sometimes unseemly - is legal and par for the course in politics.

Blagojevich himself has seemed closely involved scrutinizing potential panelists, scribbling notes on a yellow pad as would-be jurors answered questions. His wife, Patti, also has taken detailed notes sitting on a nearby spectators' bench.

Those still in the jury pool include a former state prosecutor, a substitute teacher who said she didn't like her job and a recently retired maintenance man who told the court how he once saved up $1,500 to pay to drive a Formula One racecar 177 mph.

Another person Zagel refused to dismiss was a man convicted of assault and battery who had to attend an anger-management course as part of his sentence. The man, holding a microphone as he answered the judge's questions, hesitated when Zagel asked if those courses had helped.

"You didn't stand up and throw the mic at me, so it helped a little," Zagel said, smiling.

Zagel has said he wants to have 12 jurors and several alternates impaneled by Wednesday, meaning opening arguments could start that day or Thursday. The retrial is not expected to last as long as the first 2 1/2-month trial, in part because prosecutors have streamlined their case by dropping complex racketeering charges.

(Photo by Robert Wildeboer/IPR)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 25, 2011

Ind. Ban on Synthetic Marijuana Nears Approval

Synthetic marijuana known as spice or K2 would be banned under a bill that is close to gaining approval in the Indiana Legislature.

The state Senate is scheduled on Monday to consider final passage of the bill, which would treat possessing or dealing synthetic marijuana the same as the real drug. The House earlier unanimously approved the bill that lists 25 chemical compounds used to make the substance often sold as incense.

Several Indiana counties have local ordinances banning the substance from stores, but supporters say a state law criminalizing it is needed. Health officials and police have urged lawmakers to ban it because of adverse reactions such as increased heart rate and hallucinations.

If the Senate approves the bill, it would go to the governor for consideration.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 22, 2011

IL Gov. Quinn Grants 85 Clemency Petitions

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn granted 85 clemency petitions and denied 189 others in the latest round of action to clear a backlog of cases left by his predecessor, ousted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Quinn granted pardons and expunged convictions in most of the cases Friday that included offenses from burglary and drug charges to armed robbery and reckless discharge of a firearm.

This latest action brings the number of clemency petitions Quinn has granted to 467. He has denied 728 other petitions.

Blagojevich left a backlog of 2,500 cases when he was impeached and removed from office in January 2009 after his arrest on federal corruption charges. Blagojevich is currently on trial in Chicago for a second time.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 21, 2011

Cherry Orchard Landlords Continue to House Tenants

Despite a court order barring Bernard and Eduardo Ramos from accepting tenants at the Cherry Orchard Village apartments, they continue to do so, according to the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.

The Ramoses were found guilty Monday in Champaign County court of failing to legally connect the property's sewer and septic systems. They must pay more than $54,000 in fines ($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 judge in the case, John Kennedy, also issued an injunction, preventing the Ramoses from housing tenants until Cherry Orchard is brought up to code.

The Ramoses submitted a notice of appeal following the ruling.

Public Health administrator Julie Pryde said her department sent a health inspector to Cherry Orchard twice after the verdict. About 20 vehicles were discovered on the property. The health inspector spoke to a tenant who said she confronted Bernard Ramos about media coverage surrounding the trial. Pryde said the tenant was told by Ramos that he is appealing the court ruling, and that there's "no reason to move."

"It's clear that he has been moving people in almost continuously since we told him to stop," Pryde said. "He's actually gone out of his way to tell people that it's ok that they continue to live there."

Pryde said her department is working with different state agencies to help find remaining Cherry Orchard tenants permanent homes.

"I can't even begin to imagine how much time has been spent on this Cherry Orchard situation, and you know none of that money comes back to these agencies," she said.

This is not the first time efforts have been made to find emergency homes for Cherry Orchard tenants. Back in January, Pryde organized a meeting with groups including the Salvation Army, the United Way, and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to help get tenants into safe, permanent housing.

Pryde said she would like to see increased enforcement to ensure that the court order is followed. A request for comment from the Champaign County State's Attorney was not immediately returned.

Bernard Ramos and his family have 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.

Cherry Orchard is located right outside of Rantoul, and has traditionally housed migrant workers.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 21, 2011

Ind. Elections Chief Appeals Ruling

Embattled Indiana Secretary of State Charlie White is appealing a judge's ruling sending a dispute over his November election back to the state recount commission.

Marion Circuit Court officials say the notice of appeal was filed today.

White lawyer Jim Bopp says the judge's ruling improperly asks the commission to decide an issue that's already being decided in a separate criminal case - whether White committed voter fraud.

Democrats are seeking to have White's candidacy disqualified and their candidate named winner in his place. Judge Louis Rosenberg ruled April 7 that the recount panel should reconsider Democrats' claims that White committed voter fraud by lying about his address on a registration form.

Bopp says such a decision is beyond the scope of the commission's powers.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 19, 2011

A Look at the Blagojevich Legal Saga

The retrial of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich begins Wednesday, April 20 with jury selection. It's been two and a half years since the governor was arrested, then impeached, then tried. Illinois Public Radio's Robert Wildeboer has this audio postcard of highlights from this legal saga that's been marked by political theater.

(AP Photo/Verna Sadock)

Download mp3 file

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.


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