Illinois Public Media News

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.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 12, 2011

Bill Requires Criminal Checks on Medical Workers

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.


WILL - Illinois Public Media News - April 11, 2011

Cherry Orchard Landlords Present Their Defense in Court

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)


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 08, 2011

Legislation Would Bar Release of Gun Permit Info

Names of people authorized to own guns would be declared secret under legislation approved by the Illinois House.

The state police would be barred from releasing information on people who have Firearm Owner Identification cards.

The House approved the bill 98-12 Friday. It now heads to the Senate.

The attorney general ruled last month that the list of people with FOID cards must be released under the state Freedom of Information Act.

Firearm advocates objected. They argue the information would tell criminals who owns guns that are worth stealing.

The bill would allow disclosure of names in criminal investigations.


AP - Illinois Public Media News - April 07, 2011

U.S. to use Facebook, Twitter for Terror Alerts

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.


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