Illinois Public Media News
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)
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.
The Champaign County nursing home will begin repaying a $330,000 loan that it received from the county a few years ago.
The County Board unanimously approved a plan Thursday night requiring the nursing home to make monthly payments of $1,000 a month into its general revenue fund. County Board member Jan Anderson sits on the nursing home board, and she said the repayment plan may seem like a modest amount. But she said "it shows good faith in wanting to repay" the loan given the nursing home's current financial state.
Champaign County Board Member Alan Nudo is also part of the county's nursing home board. He said since the loan was given out, the nursing home has made a profit and seen an uptick in occupancy.
"The likelihood of us going back to the county for another loan is slight at this time, but you can't predict the future," Nudo said.
Nudo said the nursing home will start repaying the loan by the beginning of May or June.
In about a year, the Champaign County Board will review the repayment plan to determine if the $1,000 a month rate should be increased. But nursing home administrator Andrew Buffenbarger said he is not sure when the center will be in a position to pay a higher monthly fee.
"We'll just continue to evaluate it as time goes on," Buffenbarger said. "It's one of those things that we would like to get retired just as soon as possible, but naturally have to consider the needs of the home."
Buffenbarger said the nursing home is also paying off a $4 million construction loan.
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.
The city of Chicago has launched a program that officials say will help the taxi industry buy hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles.
Mayor Richard Daley announced the program on Friday, the same day as Earth Day. It's called the Green Taxi Program and the goal is to help the city reach lower carbon emission goals. It also aims to passengers trips in environmentally sustainable vehicles.
A federal Clean Cities grant will fund the program. The program will use $1 million to reimburse the cost of certain green vehicles.
Hybrids will be reimbursed $2,000 and propane-powered vehicles can qualify for between $9,000 and $14,000. Eletric vehicles don't qualify.
Indiana Republicans have made two big gains in education policy. On Thursday a majority of the Indiana Senate approved what could become one of the most expansive school voucher programs in the nation. That comes just a day after the governor signed a new law that restricts collective bargaining for public school teachers.
Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels visited Valparaiso Thursday to tout the momentum he and the Republican-controlled legislature have seen for their education agenda.
Speaking on the collective bargaining issue, Daniels deflected criticism of being anti-union. He said, under the new legislation, teachers still have the right to bargain over salaries and benefits; they are only losing out on bargaining over things that have nothing to do with educating children. He cited things like like the color of paint inside teachers' lounges or the temperature inside of a school.
"This is the year we really transform Indiana for the better. I'm really very grateful for what the General Assembly has agreed to help us do," Daniels said before the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce at Strongbow Inn. "Now, we have to go and make that system work."
The restrictions on teachers' collective bargaining take effect July 1.
Republican lawmakers are expected to enact more changes in education before the end of the legislation session, which ends next week. Several include changes Daniels laid out in his State of the State address in January.
Next on the list is the school voucher expansion, which the Senate approved Thursday. It could be taken up again by the Indiana House next week. The measure would allow some parents to use public money to send their children to a private school.
"Choice will no longer be limited to the well-to-do in our state. If you're a moderate or low income family and you've tried the public schools for at least a year and you can't find one that works for your child, you can direct the dollars we were going to spend on your child to the non-government school of your choice," Daniels said during his visit to Valparaiso. "That's a social justice issue to me."
Opponents worry vouchers would siphon money from public schools. The voucher issue is contentious; so much so that House Democrats referenced it when they bolted from the statehouse last month.
Another item in Daniels school overhaul initiative would impose a merit pay system on teachers. If it passes, the provision would tie raises in teacher salary to annual evaluations. Unions say that system could short-change teachers who work with students who are tough to teach.
Chicago Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel is offering a handful of specifics about what he'll accomplish in his first months on the job.
In the first question of a 70-minute interview before an audience Wednesday night at the Field Museum, Emanuel was asked to set some benchmarks he'll no doubt be judged on later: what he will have done 100 days after taking office.
"You want to rush forward all 100 days and I haven't even gotten 100 hours in yet," Emanuel said to the interviewer, Chicago Tribune editorial page editor Bruce Dold. The paper endorsed Emanuel in his campaign for mayor.
Emanuel highlighted some of the things he's done in the transition, most notably key staff announcements.
Among his first moves in office, he said, will be to appoint a board to oversee economic development funds, reorganize some of city government and close what he called the "revolving door" for public employees who take jobs as lobbyists.
Emanuel on Wednesday night also mentioned something he says would not be accomplished quickly.
"I want the culture and the mindset in city government to be one of, we all...deliver a service to the people who are paying the bills," he said.
Emanuel told the audience that won't happen in 100 days - or even in a thousand.
The Lincoln Trail Library System says Champaign's library may no longer charge out of town residents a $200 fee to check out materials.
The head of the system says she understands why Champaign's library started charging the fee for residents of Mahomet and Tolono last fall. Champaign library Director Marsha Grove said reciprocal borrowing had become much higher through patrons from neighboring towns than in Champaign and Urbana. Last year, the library lent 700,000 items through the Lincoln Trial system, while Champaign -Urbana residents borrowed about 200-thousand.
Grove said the plan was to evaluate the fee after six months, and the library is sticking to it.
"The board and I will very carefully look at the all the facets of this, and do so, as we have always done, with our primary concern of serving our residents right here in Champaign," Grove said. "That's what we want to do well."
But Lincoln Trail Director Jan Ison said she's surprised to hear the Champaign Public Library board would wait about a month before deciding whether to waive that fee, and she said residents of rural towns still pay taxes for library services.
"They are not non-residents in a legal sense," Ison said. "A non-resident would live outside of any tax-supported public library. And so the residents of Tolono and Mahomet, of those library districts, do pay taxes. Now, those taxes may not be as great as Champaign's tax, which is one of the reasons the board understands that they should perhaps be restricted."
Libraries in the Lincoln Trail system are allowed to limit the items a non-resident patron can check out to five, but Ison called the special use fee 'unacceptable' to both the Lincoln Trail System and Illinois State Library.
The Lincoln trial board said libraries that continue to charge the fee could lose their reciprocal borrowing privileges. Ison said the idea is get Tolono and Mahomet patrons using their local libraries more often.
But no decisions are expected soon. Neither the Champaign Library Board nor the Lincoln Trail Library board will meet until the 3rd week of May.
Residents of a mobile home park that has become a center of Champaign-Urbana's Hispanic community has no central place to go in an emergency. As Jose Diaz of the investigative reporting unit CU-Citizen Access reports, residents want the situation to change.
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.
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