Illinois Public Media News
18 months after his arrest on federal corruption charges, jury selection begins Thursday in Chicago in the trial of Rod Blagojevich. The former Illinois governor is charged with trying to trade state decisions and appointments for cash and political favors --- including an appointment to the President Obama's old Senate seat.
A University of Illinois law professor says a major point of contention in the Blagojevich trial will be the link between favors granted by the former governor and requests for campaign donations and favors.
Professor Andrew Leipold says he thinks arguments by the defense will not focus on what Blagojevich said, but on what those statements mean.
"When the former governor said X, did he mean, 'and if you don't give me money I won't do it', says Leipold. "Or was he discussing two different topics: 'I'm prepared to do this'; and perhaps separately, 'Are you going to be contributing to my campaign, because we're doing a lot of good work, and I would value your support'."
Leipold says that question will make testimony by someone like former Blagojevich aide Lon Monk especially important ... because he would be in a position to know the former governor's intentions. Monk is cooperating with federal prosecutors in the Blagojevich trial.
Meanwhile, while opening arguments in the trial are still days away, Blagojevich has been make his cause before the public,w ith TV and radio appearances, and the publication of a book.
Leipold says it's an unusual move for a defendant in a trial.
"The notion that your client would be out going on talk shows and on the radio and on reality television is normally not something that defense lawyers would encourage", says Leipold. "Anything the governor says in any of his many, many, many public appearances are fair game, in the sense that if he says something that turns out to be different that what he says at trial, then he's subject to impeachment by that."
And Leipold says it's clear that Blagojevich intends to testify in his own defense at the trial. It will be Blagojevich's word against his words recorded in wiretapped conversations that prosecutors say show the former governor engaging in a "public corruption crime spree".
But Leipold says he expects the defense to argue that Blagojevich's requests for money and political favors were not connected to any of his actions as governor.
Two Democratic Champaign County Board members say there's been a real sense of cooperation with employee unions as the county seeks out more than a million dollars in cuts.
Both Labor Subcommittee Chair Sam Smucker and committee member Brendan McGinty say there's no sense of urgency in getting an agreement approved. 127 employees, including 70 union workers, are expected to take furlough days in the next fiscal year. Smucker says the county is trying to avoid layoffs, and without naming specifics, says both sides have discussed a number of other mechanisms to make up for a lack of state funds. "I think all of them have been discusseed publicly and privately, and again, the thing that's most heartening is I think the employees really do recognize the situation that the county's in and are coming to the table with that sort of seriousness."
McGinty says departments did a good job of avoiding layoffs and furloughs last year by trimming travel and training budgets. And he says department heads have left the equivalent of one payroll off their budgets for the last six months. "They handled that in different ways," said McGinty. "But we've done it, for all intents and purposes, with minimal impact to our work force. And that's been a real show of cooperative spirit between the employees and department heads and elected officials."
Smucker says he hopes any additional cost-saving measures will put Champaign County in a position to provide regular raises a couple of years from now. The majority of the union workers impacted by furloughs are clerical staff. Another $600,000 in cuts may be required, but county officials are waiting to see if the flow of funds from state appropriations and county fees improve.
The Champaign County Board's Labor Subcommittee meets again Thursday afternoon.
A federal judge in Chicago today turned down a last-minute request for a delay in former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's corruption trial and told his attorneys to get ready to start picking a jury tomorrow.
The impeached Illinois governor's racketeering and fraud trial is set to get under way following 18 months of skirmishing in the courts and the media.
Blagojevich and his brother, Nashville, Tenn., businessman Robert Blagojevich, have pleaded not guilty. They're accused of scheming to profit from the governor's power to fill the U.S. Senate seat that President Barack Obama vacated following his November 2008 election.
Blagojevich's lawyers contend they've been swamped by as many as nine million pages of documents, 270 hours of tapes and summaries of interviews with more than 700 people. They say they haven't had time to prepare.
Gov. Pat Quinn isn't saying exactly how he plans to cut state spending to close the multibillion dollar budget gap --- only that he's going to.
Just days after Illinois lawmakers left many key spending decisions up to Quinn, the governor said Tuesday only that he's willing to make the tough cuts that lawmakers are unwilling to make.
But when pressed for details, Quinn talked only about how some costs will be trimmed through furlough days for lawmakers and himself and a reduction in travel expenses for state workers. Those steps don't come close to closing a $13 billion budget shortfall.
Quinn was clear on what he does not want to cut and hopes he won't have to cut much: education, public safety, human services and health care.
That would rule out cuts to most of the state budget.
After 17 years, the Champaign Liquor Advisory Commission is no more. The Champaign City Council voted 8-0 Tuesday night to dissolve the panel set up to advise council members on changes to the Champaign liquor code.
Issued discussed by the Liquor Advisory Commission in recent years include Unofficial St. Patrick's Day, package liquor deliveries, and regulations for nuisance parties. But the commission -- which was made up of six Champaign liquor license holders, two University of Illinois representatives and a city council member --- canceled many of its monthly meetings, and held actual meetings just four times in the past year. The Liquor Advisory Commission had never exercised its powers to hold hearings or inspect bars and liquor stores. Champaign Mayor and Liquor Commissioner Jerry Schweighart says the panel no longer serves a useful purpose.
"They only meet once a month for what, an hour, hour and a half", says Schweighart. "Some of these issues drug on for a long time with the LAC studying them. On some of these things, I need a quicker response. So I think I can get that quicker response by using direct communication with all the license holders."
Schweighart says the Liquor Advisory Commission canceled many meetings, because there were few issues for them to discuss. "And they were getting frustrated with that", adds the mayor. "I know that some of the commissioners were disgusted with the fact that they'd spend so much time on an issue, and then the council would just totally out-of-hand reject it. So, there was frustrations on both parts."
No Liquor Advisory Commissioners or other liquor license holder spoke up about the vote to disband the panel during the council meeting.
Schweighart says he'll keep in touch with liquor license holders by mail and email, and reach out to members of the now defunct commission informally when he needs their input. In the meantime, the mayor says he's looking at phasing out some other city commissions he thinks are no longer needed.
More and more adults are going back to college to resume their studies or start from scratch - but they also fear standing out in a class of 19 or 20 year old students.
But the head of the adult re-entry center at Champaign's Parkland College says that's one common misconception of higher education. Billie Mitchell's program helps about 450 older students navigate the college routine, and she says those students make up a growing percentage in many Parkland courses.
"The younger students learn a lot from the experienced students and vice versa," Mitchell assured. "So don't be afraid of that -- very seldom is it going to be 24 19-year-olds and only one person who's raising a family and that sort of thing."
But Mitchell says another misconception among returning adult students is that they can jump right into college again without much planning. She says financial aid is among the facets of college life that adult students have to prepare for well before any deadlines. That's why Parkland is hosting a "transitions" workshop next month for students who are considering juggling college with their family and career lives. The workshop is set for July 8th.
The University of Illinois Flash Index recorded its lowest level since September.
The index fell in May to 90.6, its second consecutive month in decline following a six month increase. Fred Giertz of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs compiles the Flash Index. He said the drop isn't attributable to any one cause.
The recovery is kind of slowing and not as strong as people thought and hoped," Giertz said. "May was also a bad month for the stock market, so I think there's some lack of confidence now. It's been too much of a downturn. Next month it will be important to see where it goes from there."
Giertz says he expects the economy to get better but it will be a slow process. He says unemployment is still high and the state is going to experience a more painful recovery than it has experienced in recessions in roughly the past 20 years.
The Flash Index is a weighted average based on state corporate, personal income and sales tax receipts. Any number below 100 indicates economic contraction.
The Urbana Park District and the public will spend the next few months poring over three separate proposals for a new outdoor pool.
A team of consultants is putting together those three plans, along with what it would cost to build and operate each of them. Park District Executive Director Vicki Mayes says public input has already been a large part of replacing Crystal Lake Pool. She says the park district will soon be taking comments on these three proposals on line ,and through its 'neighborhood nights' events held around town this summer. Mayes says the goal of a new pool is making it unique to Urbana, striking a balance for its younger and older users. "Features that attract and are really positive for families who have children," said Mayes. "And also to hold onto those folks that are core users, which are fitness swimmers, swim lessons. It will be some combination of traditional pool elements - definitely a zero depth, which is an easy entry element."
Mayes says amenities like the 'lazy river' found at Champaign's Sholem Aquatic Center are likely too expensive for a new Urbana pool. Building a new pool will require a tax referendum, but Mayes says it's too early to say whether that will happen next spring when factoring in the economy. She says the district may also consider building the pool in different phases. At Tuesday's Park District Board study session, the board will ask consultants to come up with those three designs, a rough idea of their cost, as well as possible fee structures for pool admission. Urbana has been without a public outdoor pool since Crystal Lake Pool closed in 2008 due to electrical problems. The Park District hopes to have a new one built by late 2012 or early 2013.
The state doesn't have a say as to whether the Champaign Park District replaces the marquee on the Virginia Theatre.
A spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency says things will stay that way, as long as no state or federal permits or funding is involved in any potential work. But the agency is still recommending to the Park District Board that the current marquee stay in place, rather than replace it with a replica of the original from 1921. The Virginia Theater is on the National Register of Historic Places, and its current sign was on the nomination form when it was listed. Historic Agency spokesman Dave Blanchette says the building itself is significant, with or without the sign.
"However, our removing a historic feature from the building such as the marquee would impact its historic integrity in our opinion," said Blanchette. "It probably would not jeopardize its National Register of Historic Places listing, but nontheless, it's a historic feature of the building which we think needs to retained." Blanchette says the 1940's marquee adds to the historic character of the building. Champaign's historic preservation commission is opposed to changing it to a replica of what it once looked like. The city's park district board expects to take up the issue again June 9th.
Illinois lawmakers have approved a budget and returned home, but they refused to give Governor Pat Quinn all he wanted.
Over the past few weeks it became clear Governor Pat Quinn's efforts to get a tax increase were being pushed aside. Instead, Quinn pinned his hopes on borrowing nearly 4 billion dollars. The proceeds would go into public employee pension systems, freeing up tax dollars that could be used on various needs like schools. One problem was that Quinn was unable to convince enough legislators to give him borrowing authority. The majority party Democrats in the Senate still needed Republican help, and they didn't get it, angering Senate President John Cullerton. "We don't have any Republican votes like they did in the House," Cullerton said following the session.
The House narrowly approved borrowing earlier in the week, getting a pair of Republicans to go along. Cullerton says he envisions returning to the Capitol in a couple of weeks, before the new fiscal year begins.
The Senate failure means Quinn will have to try again or try to manage the state's $13 billion deficit with $4 billion to spend. Democrats could also vote to skip the payment altogether, a move Quinn says would be more costly in the long run.
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