Illinois Public Media News
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is be back on the witness stand today trying to convince jurors that he is innocent. He spent about six hours in total on the stand last week.
He is still being questioned by his own attorney Aaron Goldstein. The questions give Blagojevich a chance to say that he never extorted anyone. Blagojevich says he never explicitly or implicitly threatened to withhold state action if they didn't give him campaign contributions.
He has told jurors that it's important for politicians to raise money because, "this is the system that we have in America."
He said the U.S. Supreme court has protected campaign contributions under the first amendment right to free speech. He has also told jurors that following fundraising laws can be delicate because of the nature of politics and he's explaining how he tried to follow the laws.
Prosecutors could spend days challenging Blagojevich's assertions after defense attorneys finish their questioning.
Blagojevich has so far only addressed about half of the allegations against him. The 54-year-old hasn't yet touched on the most serious accusation that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat for a top job or campaign cash.
His attorneys have said Blagojevich most likely wouldn't delve into that explosive allegation until later this week.
He faces a total of 20 counts. He has denied any wrongdoing.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)
The children of immigrants, both legal and illegal, would be able to obtain private college scholarships and enroll in Illinois state savings programs under legislation approved Monday.
A 61-53 vote in the Illinois House sent the measure to Gov. Pat Quinn's desk because it already passed the state Senate. Quinn said in a statement that he looked forward to signing it.
Supporters praised the legislation as a much-needed way to offer financial help to undocumented immigrants who graduate from Illinois high schools and want to continue their studies in college but can't afford it.
The Illinois Dream Act would create a panel to raise private money for college scholarships and let the children of immigrants join programs that help them invest money and save for college.
"These students deserve an opportunity. They work hard. We send them through grade school, we send them through high school, then we slam a door in their face and say `Oh well, all the hard work is for nothing. You can't go to college,"' said state Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago.
To qualify for the college savings pool, students must have a Social Security number or taxpayer identification number. Scholarship recipients must have at least one immigrant parent and the student must have attended school in Illinois for at least three years.
Carla Navoa, a 22-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is in the country illegally, lobbied for the bill because it will help others like her pay for college. She said she currently isn't enrolled in college because of the financial stress on her family with a younger sister in college, too.
"Having access to this Dream Fund would really help us," Navoa said.
Opponents have criticized the legislation as improper because it provides benefits that could help people who violate immigration laws. They also have complained it's confusing because of proposed federal legislation by the same name that would give some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
The Illinois Dream Act has no impact on a person's immigration status and it doesn't offer a path to citizenship.
The Illinois House is bucking recent history by approving a major expansion of legalized gambling.
The House voted 65-50 Monday to approve five new casinos, including one in Danville. The others would go to Chicago, Rockford, Lake County and somewhere in the south suburbs.
The measure now goes to the Senate.
State Representative Lou Lang (D-Skokie) said the legislation would bring the state one and a half billion dollars in startup fees and $500 million or more a year in ongoing revenue.
Governor Pat Quinn has said he dislikes such a huge expansion.
But Lang said the additional casinos would bring in money to pay overdue bills.
"The most important part of this has nothing to do with gaming at all, the most important part of this is putting people to work and helping pay the bills of the state of Illinois," Lang said. "That is an important goal."
The proposal also allows horse race tracks to add slot machines, and it'd permit both slots and racing at the state fairgrounds in Springfield.
State legislators are trying to assert their authority on the approval of public employee health insurance contracts.
They passed a measure Monday in the Illinois House of Representatives by a vote of 98-15 to give themselves the ability to approve or deny new contracts.
However, it may be too late to stave off changes that are forcing one hundred thousand public employees to switch health care coverage.
The changes come in direct response to the recent ethics commission ruling that the state was right to drop the HMOs provided by Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana.
Legislators were outraged and said the contract award process was inherently flawed. The administration maintains it followed the rules set forth by legislators themselves. State Representative David Leitch (R-Peoria) said lawmakers should be able to overturn decisions.
"What kind of idiots would come up with a process that would permit this to happen," Leitch said.
But not everyone wants to scrap the recent bidding process and put the decisions in the hands of a new seven member panel. House Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie of Chicago voted against the measure. She said legislators need to think twice before bypassing a law aimed at taking politics out of the group employee health insurance program.
"I think you have to look carefully at the idea that this handful of people should be able to say to the losers, 'OK, losers, today because of us seven people you get to be a winner," Currie said. "That's not the way to run any state government."
The measure passed in the midst of the annual open enrollment period when workers can pick new health plans.
Governor Quinn's Administration is moving forward despite the legislation, and telling employees to choose coverage before June 17th. After that date workers will automatically be placed in a new plan.
Lawmakers in Springfield have passed legislation to expand access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. It now heads to Gov. Pat Quinn, who has said he would sign the measure into law. As Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers reports, this isn't the first time the state has considered how far it should go to accommodate people who have come to this country illegally.
(AP Photo/Jason Redmond)
Illinois lawmakers were scheduled to be back at work Sunday afternoon, as they continue a rare holiday weekend session.
The Illinois House was scheduled to return to the floor at 4 p.m. Sunday. The Senate was set to be back at 5 p.m.
On Saturday, the Senate approved a plan to overhaul workers' compensation to cut business costs and curb corruption.
The measure now heads to the House. It would slash payments to doctors and hospitals that care for injured workers. It would tighten reviews that determine an injury's severity and cost, as well as cap awards for the increasingly common claim of carpal tunnel syndrome.
Those changes are meant to cut the $3 billion workers' comp system by up to $700 million a year, or more than 20 percent.
The legislation passed 46-8, with 2 voting present.
Among east-central Illinois lawmakers, Senators Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign), Bill Brady (R-Bloomington) and Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) voted in favor of the measure. Senator Shane Cultra (R-Onarga) voted against it. Senator Kyle McCarter (R-Lebanon) did not vote.
High winds in the Champaign area this week were apparently were strong enough to topple and shatter a 6-ton granite veterans' memorial in the village of Savoy.
Village board member Bill Smith says village staff noticed the 8-foot tall, black granite block had been knocked over early Wednesday morning. He says the wind bent steel bars that held up the memorial "like wet noodles.''
The village expects insurance to help cover the cost of repairing or replacing the memorial. Smith says the memorial cost $30,000 when it was built in 2008. He says the real holdup involves getting a hold of black granite to be shipped from overseas. Area residents and businesses contributed the money for the original structure, but Smith says more donations have already come in to rebuild the memorial.
"This memorial was put up with the intent of not using public dollars to maintain and take care of it, so we're always in need of funding," said Smith. "So if there's a little extra that's collected after the deductable is paid, then we'll use that for ongoing maintenance."
A Memorial Day ceremony planned for the site Monday is cancelled.
Democratic lawmakers have approved new legislative districts that are likely to complicate life for Illinois Republicans for the next 10 years.
The new legislative map now goes to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.
Legislative districts are redrawn every decade to reflect population changes.
Democrats control the Legislature so they were able to draw new districts that would make elections tougher for Republicans.
The Senate approved the new districts 35-22 Friday. The House approved them earlier in the day.
Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich switched his focus Friday during his second day on the witnesses stand from describing himself as an everyday man to seemingly pointing the fingers at others.
A less-animated Blagojevich offered nitty-gritty, often laborious detail to jurors about the legislative process and the hardscrabble world of political fundraising. Gone were the hand gestures, emotion and long monologue about himself from the day before.
Blagojevich still did not get to most explosive allegations against him, that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat for campaign cash or a top job.
His testimony Friday centered on allegations that he tried to shake down racetrack executive John Johnston for a $100,000 campaign contribution by withholding his signature on a bill that benefited the horse-racing industry.
The twice-elected governor conceded that he was eager to get a contribution from Johnston, but when his attorney asked if he was refusing to sign the bill as a way to squeeze Johnston for money, Blagojevich denied it.
"No, I was not," he said in a firm voice. "My intention was to follow the law ... and be careful not to cross any lines."
Blagojevich also told jurors that advance commitments from would-be donors - and urging would-be donors to follow through - was critical to enabling politicians to plan ahead for hard election fights.
"This is the system we have in America," he said. "I think it is an imperfect and flawed system."
The former government appeared to suggest that two of his close friends turned top advisers, Lon Monk and Chris Kelly, may have been at least partly to blame for the perception that Blagojevich seemed to be shaking down the executive.
His attorney asked Blagojevich to explain excerpts of an FBI wiretap recording, in which Monk tells Blagojevich about having just met Johnston, pressing him for money. Blagojevich several times noted that it was Monk, not him, who went to Johnston.
Later, he talked about his late friend Chris Kelly, offering suspicions that Kelly might have been "meddling" in the racetrack legislation himself as an explanation for why Blagojevich was so slow to sign the bill.
Kelly committed suicide in 2009, days before he was to report to prison to begin a term on tax and mail fraud convictions.
Though he didn't explain in detail, Blagojevich claimed that he believed Kelly might be trying to manipulate the racetrack bill somehow in an effort to curry favor with people with supposed connections to then-President George W. Bush. Kelly's aim, Blagojevich told jurors: To get someone to ask Bush to grant Kelly a pardon and keep him out of prison.
Blagojevich said that, and not any shakedown, was his reason for delay in signing the race-track bill.
"I don't want anyone to say I am signing the bill because I am part of some scheme with Chris," Blagojevich told jurors. "I was afraid if I sign the bill, this is what they might say."
As he did on Thursday in his first day of testimony, Blagojevich frequently veered off-topic. Judge James Zagel frequently intervened.
"See if you can answer a question yes or no," he told Blagojevich at one point.
Zagel sent jurors home for the Memorial Day holiday at around noon on Friday. Defense attorneys told Zagel that Blagojevich will be called to the stand again on Tuesday and that he could remain on the stand for the defense until Thursday.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)
A huge expansion of legalized gambling in Illinois is headed to the House floor.
The proposal would create licenses for five new riverboat gambling casinos. It would include a gambling boat or land-based casino in Chicago. It also would expand horse racing and add slot machines at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
The bill sponsored by Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie was approved 8-3 Friday by the Executive Committee. It failed in the same committee Wednesday with only five votes.
Gov. Pat Quinn said earlier Friday he opposes "top-heavy'' gambling expansion and frowned on gambling at the fairgrounds.
Lobbyists for existing riverboat casinos oppose the measure because they say the market is saturated and state revenues would drop at current boats.
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