Illinois Public Media News
Nearly 1,000 firefighters from small and rural departments will spend the weekend sharpening their skills.
The University of Illinois' 87th Annual Fire College, the oldest continuing series of lessons and demonstrations, runs through Sunday.
Fire Service Institute Program Director Brad Bone says while many of the tactics stay the same - putting out a fire safely and affectively - there are changes in how building codes will affect how a fire spreads. Meanwhile, fire pumps with electronic or digital controls, or changes in how a breathing apparatus operates are part of a developing curriculum.
And Bone says the various lessons pay off when the firefighter returns home.
"We might get contacted by somebody a year from now, and say 'hey, I took your single family dwelling class, and three or six months later we had a fire, and it really helped me," said Bone. "We'll get news clippings from former students about events they had at home and how it helped them."
About half the 100 instructors aren't from the Institute. They include Eddie Enright, a retired Chicago firefighter. While all the exercises are important, he says there's leadership required, and the college has brought in 3 military officers to teach courses.
"There's a strong reality of the miiltary in fire service," said Enright. "The leadership, the structure. The tradition, the duty, the pride. And we get that correlation and try to get people the reality - you know, the importance of leadership. And how do you get people in the military - how do you get them to cross the perimeter, and follow you, and get that trust in fate. Same in the fire service."
Instructors say they're still hoping to add structures for demonstrations in code enforcement. And the U of I is securing new land so it can conduct drills with flammable liquid burns, in an where they won't disturb nearby residents and businesses. Bone says while local budgets have really impacted hiring in local fire departments, he says state finances haven't hurt the fire institute.
A free open house and demonstration runs from 7-30 to 9 Friday night at the Institute, located at 11 Gerty Drive in Champaign.
(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)
Excavation work continues at the site that once housed a manufactured gas plant in Champaign.
Ameren Illinois is working on the corner of 5th and Hill Streets to clear soil that is suspected of having traces of the pollutant coal tar. Most of the work to remove the soil has taken place underneath a large protective tent, but on Thursday workers dug about three feet of dirt outside of the tent.
That sparked concerns from the health care advocacy group, Champaign County Health Care Consumers. The group said a monitoring device that checks for dangerous chemicals went off, raising the possibility that nearby communities might be at risk.
"The vapors and the dust that comes up from this type of excavation are highly toxic and this is a highly irresponsible activity to do," the group's executive director, Claudia Lennhoff, said.
But Ameren spokesperson Leigh Morris dismissed that claim, saying no air monitoring equipment recorded anything that would have raised health or safety concerns. Morris said both Ameren and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency were checking the excavation area Thursday with air monitoring equipment, which did not identify any red flags.
"There was never any type of a health concern," Morris explained. "There was some dust. The dust was caused from gravel. We did receive one complaint about that, and we watered the gravel down to end the dust problem."
The excavation happened on the edge of a gate, near two buildings used by the Center for Women in Transition. Site supervisor Jacob Blanton said there was no way the tent could have been moved with nearby power lines and a narrow alley in the way.
Morris said some additional digging outside of the protective tent will likely be performed in July.
Back in April, Champaign agreed to plug a pipe suspected of having dangerous chemicals near the Boneyard Creek, which extends to the site where the gas plant once stood. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has said there is no evidence to suggest coal tar has made its way from the plant into the pipeline.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
The political corruption case against ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is now in the hands of jurors again.
For the second time, a jury will try to reach a verdict on corruption charges. They include allegations that Blagojevich sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and tried to shake down executives by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses.
Jurors heard the prosecution describe Blagojevich as an audacious schemer who lied to their faces on the witness stand. The defense countered that the government only showed that Blagojevich talks a lot.
"He didn't get a dime, a nickel, a penny . . . nothing," defense attorney Aaron Goldstein shouted just feet from the jury box. Turning to point at Blagojevich, Goldstein added that the trial "isn't about anything but nothing."
At one point during Goldstein's more than two-hour closing, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, began to sob on a courtroom bench, wiping tears from her cheek.
Pacing the crowded courtroom and sometimes pounding his fist on a lectern, Goldstein echoed what Blagojevich said during seven days on the stand - that his conversations captured on FBI wiretap recordings were mere brainstorming.
"You heard a man thinking out loud, on and on and on," he said. "He likes to talk, and he does talk, and that's him. And that's all you heard."
"They want you to believe his talk is a crime - it's not," Goldstein added, casting a look at three prosecutors sitting nearby.
Lead prosecutor Reid Schar balked at that argument, telling jurors in his rebuttal - the last word to jurors - that Blagojevich went way beyond talk.
"He made decisions over and over, and took actions over and over," he said.
He also mocked Blagojevich for testifying that he didn't mean his apparent comments on wiretaps about pressuring businessmen for cash or other favors.
"There's one person, this guy," Schar said, indicating Blagojevich, "whose words don't mean what they mean."
Blagojevich, 54, is accused of seeking to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat and trying to shake down executives by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses.
Blagojevich did not take the stand in his first trial last year, which ended with a hung jury. That panel agreed on just a single count - that he lied to the FBI about how involved he was in fundraising as governor.
Goldstein also took issue with prosecutors likening Blagojevich to a corrupt traffic cop tapping on drivers' windows to demand bribes to rip up speeding tickets.
"The hypothetical makes no sense," he said. A police officer can't ever ask for cash, but "a politician has a right to ask for campaign contributions."
Jurors sat rapt as Goldstein whispered, yelled and moved around the room, but appeared to take fewer notes compared to when the prosecutor spoke.
Blagojevich appeared glum as a prosecutor spoke, picking constantly at his fingernails. He perked up and nodded in agreement at his own attorney.
As he entered the courthouse earlier, a fan shouted at him, "I love you." Blagojevich beamed and walked over to give her a kiss on the cheek. He joked with an aspiring attorney nearby, "I'm going to hire you for my next case."
Goldstein applauded Blagojevich for testifying, saying "it took courage to walk up there" to the witness stand.
"A man charged does not have to prove a thing," Goldstein said. "That man did not have to go up there, did not have to testify."
In contrast, he said many of the government witnesses had agreed to testify under the threat of prosecution or longer prison sentences.
For her part, prosecutor Carrie Hamilton tried to assume the role of professor and jurors' best friend - speaking in simple terms as she went through each charge and clicking on a mouse to display explanatory charts, complete with bullet points and arrows.
Hamilton said that despite Blagojevich's denials, the evidence - including the FBI recordings - proves he used his power as governor to benefit himself.
"What he is saying to you now is not borne out anywhere on the recordings that you have," Hamilton said, urging jurors to listen to the wiretaps.
"There's one person in the middle of it - the defendant," she said, pointing at Blagojevich. "What you hear is a sophisticated man ... trying to get things for himself."
Hamilton told jurors Blagojevich could remember intricate details of his life but not whether he did or didn't do something related to an alleged scheme.
"He suddenly has amnesia on things that hurt him," she said.
After jurors at the first trial said prosecutors' case was too hard to follow, they sharply streamlined it. Prosecutors called about 15 witnesses this time - about half the number from last time. They also asked them fewer questions and rarely strayed onto topics not directly related to the charges.
(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
A federal jury convicted a Chicago businessman on Thursday of helping plot an attack against a Danish newspaper that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad but cleared him of the most serious charge that accused him of cooperating in the deadly 2008 rampage in Mumbai.
The jury reached its verdict after two days of deliberations, finding Tahawwur Rana guilty of providing material support to terrorism in Denmark and to the Pakistani militant group that had claimed responsibility for the three-day siege in India's largest city that left more than 160 people dead, including six Americans.
The jurors, who were not identified in court, declined to talk to the media to explain their split verdict. Though the jury found him not guilty of the most serious accusation, Rana still faces up to 30 years in prison on the other two charges.
"We're extremely disappointed. We think they got it wrong," defense attorney Patrick Blegen told reporters.
At the center of the trial was testimony by the government's star witness, David Coleman Headley, Rana's longtime friend who had previously pleaded guilty to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attacks and helping plot the attack against the Danish paper. That attack was never carried out.
Rana, who did not testify, was on trial for allegedly allowing Headley to open a branch of his Chicago-based immigration law services business in Mumbai as a cover story while Headley conducted surveillance ahead of the November 2008 attacks. He was also accused of letting Headley travel as a representative of the company in Copenhagen.
The trial was highly anticipated because of Headley's testimony. His five days on the stand provided a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which took credit for the Mumbai attacks, and the alleged cooperation with Pakistan's top intelligence agency known by the ISI. The trial started just weeks after Navy SEALs found Osama bin Laden hiding outside Islamabad, raising concerns that Pakistan may have been protecting the world's most wanted terrorist.
Pakistani officials have denied the allegations and maintained that it did not know about bin Laden or help plan the Mumbai attacks.
During his testimony, Headley described how he said he took orders both from an ISI member known only as "Major Iqbal" and his Lashkar handler Sajid Mir. Through emails, recorded phone conversations and his testimony, he detailed how he met with both men - sometimes together - and then communicated all development's to Rana.
Rana's defense attorneys spent much of the time trying to discredit Headley who they say duped his longtime friend. They attacked Headley's character saying how he initially lied to the FBI as he cooperated, lied to a judge and even lied to his own family. They claim he implicated Rana in the plot because he wanted to make a deal with prosecutors, something he'd learned after he became an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after two heroin convictions.
Headley's cooperation means he avoids the death penalty and extradition.
After the verdict was read, one of Rana's attorneys approached his wife and said "I'm sorry," then huddled with her in conversation. A day earlier, Rana's wife, Samraz Rana, told The Associated Press that Headley and her husband were not as close as prosecutors had portrayed during the trial.
While much of Headley's testimony had been heard before - both through the indictment and a report released by the Indian government last year - he did reveal a few new details. Among them was that another militant leader Ilyas Kashmiri, who U.S. officials believed to be al-Qaida's military operations chief in Pakistan, had plotted to attack U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. Kashmiri was reported killed on June 3 by U.S. drone attacks inside Pakistan. While U.S. officials haven't confirmed the death, Pakistani officials say they're certain Kashmiri is dead.
Headley testified that he began working with Kashmiri to plan the attack on a Danish newspaper that in 2005 printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, which angered many Muslims because pictures of the prophet are prohibited in Islam.
The trial was also the public's first chance to get a glimpse of the admitted terrorist who in a voice so soft attorneys had to repeatedly ask him to speak up while he detailed how he posed as a tourist while he took hours of video surveillance ahead of the attacks on India's largest city. Mir, Iqbal and Kashmiri were charged in absentia, along with three others, in the case. Rana was the only defendant on trial.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)
A rash of copper thefts in the area is spreading into the University of Illinois campus.
A top officer in the U of I police department says thefts of copper downspouts from campus buildings have taken place in the past, but there have been five reported thefts in the past five days. Two weeks ago, an area recycler reported that more than a ton of copper scrap had been stolen from its lot.
Lieutenant Roy Acree says scrap dealers have been asked to help identify any suspects.
"They've been working really well with us so far, and hopefully we'll be able to, with the extra patrols that we're doing so far and by working with the steel people in town, we'll be able to come up with a suspect or suspects," Acree said.
Acree says copper prices are rising, but he thinks general economic conditions are prompting some people to steal metal to make ends meet. He also believes the most recent thefts could be tied to one or two groups, though he says the groups might not be cooperating with each other.
A new tradition of fresh produce starts up again in Champaign Thursday.
It's the 3rd year for the Farmer's Market on North First Street. Manager Wendy Langacker says the sales of meats, fruits, crafts, and fresh cut flowers has served as an economic boon to the area, a part of town once considered a food desert when the North First Street Association was formed.
"They figured that one way to kind of kill two birds with one stone was to have a farmer's market," said Langacker. "So it would not only bring potential customers for their business by bringing them to the market and having them see the area, but it also would bring fresh, healty food to the people in that area."
Langacker says one of the real goals of cooking demonstrations and recipes available on site is getting young people to like vegetables.
"I think one thing that people really experienced last year was when you buy things that are at peak, or as I call seasonal cooking, the flavors are just multiplied," said Langacker. "And I had several famiiles come back, and say 'my kid never eats vegetables, now they love vegetables."
The Champaign Farmer's Market will include local musicians, including a steel drum performer on Thursday. New vendors include a seller of specialty cakes and cupcakes, and a maker of locally made dog biscuits. The market is also pet friendly
The market runs from 3 to 7 p.m. each Thursday thru September 1st at 201 North First Street. Meanwhile, the University of Illinois' Sustainable Student Farm will start up its own Thursday produce stand in the Urbana campus quad, beginning Thursday. It runs from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
An energy program that helps offset the cost of air conditioning bills for low-income Illinois residents is being scaled back this summer.
Because of possible federal funding cuts, the state is telling agencies that administer the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program not to expect any federal aid.
LIHEAP provides utility bill aid to households with incomes of up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
"Though the reduction in federal funding for LIHEAP is unfortunate, the state's decision is necessary to help heat homes across Illinois next winter, which is the program's top priority," said Mike Claffey, a spokesperson for Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.
Claffey said Illinois could face a 60 percent reduction in federal funding for the program for fiscal year 2012, from $246 million to $113 million.
Cameron Moore, the CEO of the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, said the lack of funding means hundreds to thousands of area residents may struggle to cool their homes this summer.
"You know, it's one of those things that's going to affect a lot of people, and I certainly think some of them negatively," Moore said. "At this point, we're hoping other agencies will work together to hopefully at a minimum provide fans for folks, maybe cooling centers. There are sort of some common responses to this kind of need that you see in other communities."
If the humidity becomes dangerous, Governor Pat Quinn could declare a state of emergency, prompting federal and state agencies to provide cooling centers.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office says it is reviewing a troubled college savings program.
Spokeswoman Natalie Bauer said Wednesday that Madigan is "looking into some issues'' at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. She did not elaborate.
The commission runs the prepaid tuition program College Illinois. A state audit released in April questioned management of the program's invested funds and said it had a continuing deficit of more than $300 million.
Lawmakers then ordered a more thorough audit.
College Illinois lets parents and others invest money now and lock in a future tuition level. But it's not guaranteed, so investors would be out of luck if the money runs out.
A spokesman said the commission had not been contacted by the attorney general or other officials.
With a $2 billion fundraising project nearly complete, the University of Illinois is turning its attention toward raising money for students in need.
Leaders at the university are launching a campaign to raise $100 million over the next three years to assist students who would otherwise be eligible for state assistance. The state's Monetary Award Program has faced several years of hardship, and last year MAP turned down more than 100,000 requests for aid.
U of I Foundation spokesman Don Kojich said the new "Access Illinois: The Presidential Scholarship Initiative" may evolve into an ongoing appeal.
"We're really going to focus the next three years on the scholarship initiative and see how much of dent we can make in that unmet need, and then evaluate it as we move forward," Kojich said.
The university is unveiling the new fund drive Thursday morning before the Board of Trustees meeting in Chicago. Among the first donations will be a $100,000 gift from President Michael Hogan and his wife, Virginia.
Kojich said students in all three U of I campuses could be eligible for help from the fund. The money may supplement an existing scholarship program or could be based on any need- or merit-based criteria.
Prosecutors began making their final arguments to jurors Wednesday at the corruption retrial of Rod Blagojevich, after presenting a streamlined case in which they tried to portray the ousted Illinois governor as a serial liar.
Government attorney Carrie Hamilton told jurors that Blagojevich took an oath to fulfill his duties as governor.
"What you have learned in court at this trial is that time and time again, the defendant violated that oath," Hamilton said. "He used his powers as governor to get things for him."
Attorneys for Blagojevich had rested their case earlier in the day after calling defense witnesses that included a former congressman, a former state budget office employee and an FBI agent. Prosecutors then called rebuttal witnesses including two Canadian building executives and two FBI agents.
Jurors could start deliberating as soon as Thursday afternoon, depending on the length of closing arguments by both sides.
In their three-week case, prosecutors called about 15 witnesses and played FBI wiretaps of Blagojevich. They sought to prove charges including that he attempted to shake down executives for cash by threatening state decisions that would hurt their businesses, and that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich, 54, faces 20 counts, including attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit bribery.
Prosecutors told jurors that Blagojevich is heard, over and over, scheming to profit from his decisions as governor. They have argued that such talk itself is a crime, and the fact that his schemes failed doesn't change the fact they were illegal.
In the retrial, the prosecution called around half the witnesses as in the first trial last year. Prosecutors asked witnesses fewer questions and rarely strayed onto topics not directly related to the charges. Unlike the first go-around, the prosecution barely touched on Blagojevich's lavish shopping or his lax, sometimes odd working habits.
Blagojevich's first trial ended with a hung jury, with the panel agreeing on a single count - that he lied to the FBI about how involved he was in fundraising as governor. Before the initial trial, Blagojevich repeatedly insisted he would speak directly to jurors, but he never did. His lawyers rested without calling a single witness.
The impeached governor was the star witness of the three-week defense presentation this time. Under a grueling cross-examination, Blagojevich occasionally became flustered, but he repeatedly denied trying to sell or trade the Senate seat or attempting to shake down executives.
In often long-winded answers, Blagojevich argued that his talk captured on FBI wiretaps was merely brainstorming, and that he never took the schemes seriously or decided to carry them out. And though the judge barred such arguments, Blagojevich claimed he'd believed his conversations were legal and part of common political discourse.
Defense attorneys had also called Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. In several motions, they've also accused the government of thwarting them, including by repeatedly objecting to their questions during cross-examination.
(AP Photo/Paul Beaty)
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