Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 25, 2011

Prosecutor: Greed Drove Blago-related Shakedown

Greed and a desire to maintain his influence in Illinois politics motivated a millionaire businessman to join a plot to shake down the Oscar-winning producer of "Million Dollar Baby," prosecutors told jurors Tuesday during closing arguments at the last trial from the federal investigation of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

But William Cellini's attorney insisted prosecutors failed to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, in part because their star witness admitted on the stand that he was a liar and cheat whose memory was impaired by decades of drug abuse.

Cellini, 76, has denied allegations he conspired to force Hollywood executive Thomas Rosenberg into making a $1.5 million donation to the Democratic governor's campaign by threatening to withhold $220 million in teachers' pension funds from Rosenberg's investment company, Capri Capital. He could face more than 50 years in prison if convicted on charges that include conspiracy to commit fraud, extortion conspiracy and attempted extortion.

Prosecutor Julie Porter told jurors repeatedly to listen to FBI wiretaps of Cellini because they support witnesses' testimony and the tone of Cellini's voice underscores his guilt.

"That is what corruption sounds like," Porter said as she played one tape in which Cellini seems to chuckle during a discussion of the alleged shakedown.

Porter also scoffed at defense claims that Cellini may have been hoodwinked and sucked unknowingly into a plot hatched by others.

"He was not on the sidelines of an extortion," she said. "Cellini had his eyes wide open and knew exactly what was going on."

Porter alluded several times to Cellini's enormous behind-the-scenes influence in Illinois politics, saying at one point that when he left a message for top-tier officials and political leaders to call him, "They called him back."

But Cellini's attorney, Dan Webb, told the jury the government hadn't made its case. He called star witness Stuart Levine "a whack job."

Prosecutors said Cellini conspired with Levine, who sat on the board of the $30 billion Teachers' Retirement System that controlled the pensions, and two Blagojevich insiders, Tony Rezko and Chris Kelly.

Levine was the only one to testify. He admitted on the stand to cheating a close friend's estate out of $2 million. He also talked about gorging on cocaine, crystal meth and other drugs - sometimes in binges at marathon parties.

"This man ... has lied, cheated and stole throughout his life," Webb told jurors. "And this is the man the government says you should believe?"

Webb reminded jurors that Levine conceded during cross-examination that his memory may have been damaged by his drug use, which continued through the May 2004 attempted shakedown.

Prosecutors say Cellini and the others backed off after Rosenberg unexpectedly threatened to go to authorities. Rosenberg testified he didn't initially suspect Cellini of trying to shake him down but thought Rezko and Kelly were.

Prosecutors say the plan called for Cellini to broach the subject of a donation with Rosenberg, and then the others would turn up the pressure later by asking for a donation and threatening the loss of the pension funds.

Rosenberg described screaming and cursing into the receiver during a 2004 phone conversation with Cellini, who had been Rosenberg's friend for more than 20 years.

"I told Bill I would not be shaken down," Rosenberg recalled telling Cellini. "I would not give a dime to Blagojevich under any circumstances."

No one, however, testified that Cellini ever asked Rosenberg for a contribution or threatened him - a point Webb made repeatedly Tuesday.

Porter conceded Cellini, a life-long Republican, would not have pocketed any of the money. But she said he hoped to ingratiate himself to Rezko and Kelly - two of the closest and most powerful confidants in the new Democratic governor's administration.

His motive for taking part in the scheme, she said, was "continued access, continued clout, continued status.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 25, 2011

Illinois Senate Approves Changes to ‘Smart Grid’ Measure

The Illinois Senate has approved changes intended to help revive electricity legislation vetoed by the governor.

The changes passed 37-20 Tuesday, despite opposition from Gov. Pat Quinn, who earlier in the day said he will work with the attorney general, AARP and other groups to block the legislation.

"I think that veto should be sustained by members of the General Assembly," said Quinn. "And everybody goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a comprehensive energy policy that is not harmful to our consumers and businesses in Illinois or our governments."

At issue is a plan to let power companies raise rates to pay for infrastructure improvements, including high-tech changes called "Smart Grid.'' Critics say the plan guarantees unfair profits and weakens state regulators.

Now supporters are trying to pass a "trailer bill'' that addresses some complaints, such as the size of profits. The idea is that if these changes are approved, a few additional lawmakers may be willing to override Quinn's veto of the underlying plan.

The override would succeed in the Senate if it gets support from everyone who voted for the trailer bill Tuesday.

Categories: Energy, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 25, 2011

Marine from Centralia Jailed in Killings Faces New Charges

A Marine Corps recruiter awaiting trial in the deaths of two central Illinois women now has been preliminarily charged with trying to have a third woman killed from jail.

Authorities told the Herald & Review in Decatur ( ) Monday that 27-year-old Timothy Giles of Centralia has been preliminarily charged with solicitation of first-degree murder. He has not entered a plea and his attorney was not immediately available.

Macon County Sheriff Thomas Schneider says detectives recorded Giles trying to hire an inmate to kill 27-year-old Casey Eaton of Harristown.

Giles has been involved in a custody dispute with Eaton. Giles pleaded not guilty to killing her mother and sister, 57-year-old Cindanett Eaton and 23-year-old Lindsey Eaton, in August. Giles also pleaded not guilty to attempting that day to kill Casey Eaton.

Tags: crime, people

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 25, 2011

Urbana Council Scraps CVB Funding

The city of Urbana's community development staff will work up a convention and tourism promotion campaign in conjunction with the Urbana Business Association.

A plan to fund Champaign County's Convention and Visitors Bureau at a much lower level failed to receive the necessary votes in last night's committee of the whole meeting to move forward.

The plan to give the CVB $18,800 needed six votes, but only received five. Alderwoman Heather Stevenson was absent. Opponents include Alderman Eric Jakobsson, who raised concerns with the lack of information and links on the Bureau's website. Mayor Laurel Prussing still contends the CVB still hadn't proved it was providing a return on the city's $72,000 investment.

"They're operating in a market that is completely dominated by the University of Illinois, and what they do isn't going to make one difference one way or the other," Stevenson said. "The major thing is people come here for a football game, a basketball game, for (the U of I's) Krannert Center. What CVB says on their website or doesn't say on their website isn't going to make any difference to that."

The original amount for the CVB was vetoed by the mayor, and the city council failed to override that veto in July. Community development staff is expected to prepare a report in the coming weeks.

Alderman Dennis Roberts questioned how those employees can take on such duties, and stay apprised of local events. Alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson argued that it only made sense to market businesses and special events on a regional basis.

"It doesn't make sense for our staff here in community development to be promoting a couple of things on our side of the line, but for us not to be able to tell people to go see Hardee's Reindeer Ranch or to go tour the (U of I's) supercomputer or to see other amazing things in Champaign County," Bowersox-Johnson said. "So ultimately if we all try to do our own little piece of this puzzle, I don't think we'll market Champaign County as well."

But since Urbana will forgo CVB funding for the time being, Bowersox said the city owes it to local businesses and shops to do a good job.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 25, 2011

UI Faculty from Turkey Weigh in on Quake Disaster

Two University of Illinois faculty members from Turkey say small villages near the site of Sunday's earthquake will suffer the most as they await relief.

A 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the southeastern town of Ercis, injuring more than 1300 people and killing hundreds of other people.

Anthropology professor Mahir Saul is from Istanbul in western Turkey, but has spent time in other parts of the country. With the entire country on a fault line, Saul said quakes of a lesser magnitude are a regular occurrence. He said Ercis may be fortunate in that the death toll from Sunday's earthquake isn't much worse.

Saul said deaths and injuries from quakes can often be blamed on the way some buildings were constructed.

"Of course, this is a low income region of the country, and probably some of the buildings were not very well built because people do not have the means," Saul said. "Every time you have something like this, unusually the government is blamed for not enforcing tighter building regulations, for not inspecting, etc, and suspect this is going to happen in this case, too."

Saul said Ercis itself can be easily reached by rescue crews, but he said neighboring villages could be hard to access.

U of I Linguistics professor Ercan Balchi is also from Istanbul. Balchi said there will be an effort within the country's government to reach even the most remote areas.

"I don't think it matters what part of Turkey this earthquake took place, people would react the same way," he said. "They would send aid as they can. So the political atmosphere would not affect the relief efforts in the area."

Both professors say the winter-like conditions in the evening around the country could be the greatest obstacle in getting relief to small villages.

Categories: Education, Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Sen. Durbin: Preserve Funding for Amtrak Service

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) says federal support for Amtrak service should be preserved.

Speaking Monday afternoon at the Illinois Terminal Building in Champaign, Durbin said an appropriations bill introduced by House Republican would slash Amtrak funding by 60 percent, and eliminate 1,800 jobs in the state. Durbin urged lawmakers in Washington to maintain Amtrak funding, saying it is critical to the state's economy.

"We are not going to cut everything at the federal government level," Durbin said. "There are some things that we're going to even increase. I think when it comes to transportation infrastructure that's the last place we ought to cut."

Amtrak Board Chairman Tom Carper said with ridership up over the last decade, now is not the time to cut funding for passenger rails.

Meanwhile, Durbin said the Republican spending bill would also force Amtrak to eliminate a route that passes through Champaign from Chicago to Carbondale. With many UIUC students originally from the Chicago area and many other faculty members who travel to Chicago for meetings, U of I President Michael Hogan said Amtrak is a necessary service for the university community.

"Taking the train into Union Station and back here at the Illinois Terminal is much more than just a convenience," Hogan said. "It also means hundreds if not thousands of fewer cars parked around our campus. "

The University of Illinois is researching the feasibility of a high-speed passenger rail line for 220-mph trains between Chicago and Champaign. The spending bill introduced by House Republicans would provide no money for high-speed and intercity rail projects.

"Faster trains could hold the power to bring a new twenty-first century wave of prosperity, and to address concerns about fossil fuels and the environment, highway congestion, and the security related inconveniences of air travel," Hogan said.

Sen. Durbin has pushed an amendment to restore $100 million for high speed and intercity rail, which he said wouldn't require additional revenue.

Durbin also talked about President Obama's $447 billion jobs plan. Last month, the president announced the measure, which would be supported by tax increases on the wealthy. Senate Republicans blocked efforts to pass the full version of that legislation.

Still, Durbin said one aspect of the bill that could still have a chance at making it through Congress seeks to modernize the nation's schools, with about $1.1 billion going to Illinois and supporting as many as 14,500 jobs in the state. He said that would help schools - like the John Hills Magnet School in Decatur - that are struggling to make necessary upgrades.

"It has an old heating system. It has no air conditions to speak of. It has asepsis issues. The list goes on and on," he explained. "The president pays for this by increases taxes on those making over a million dollars a year by one half of one percent, and unfortunately we can't get a single Republican to vote for it."

A bipartisan group of 12 members of Congress has until Nov. 23 to find at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings. Critics have expressed doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Past Lt. Gov. Candidate Running for Congress

An unsuccessful Republican candidate for Illinois lieutenant governor is running for Congress.

Businessman Jason Plummer's campaign announced Monday he's running in Illinois' 12th Congressional District in southern Illinois. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello is retiring.

The seat would be a prize for Republicans. A Democrat-drawn redistricting map attempts to strip them of their gains in Congress.

Plummer was the running mate last year of state Sen. Bill Brady, who lost the Illinois governor's race to Democrat Pat Quinn. Plummer works in his family's lumber company.

His campaign says he's focused on reining in government spending and reforming the country's tax and regulatory systems so the government gets out of the way of small businesses.

Other Republicans also want Costello's seat, including former Belleville Mayor Roger Cook.

Categories: Biography, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Quinn Appoints Illinois Transportation Secretary

Gov. Pat Quinn has appointed a new leader for the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Quinn on Monday named Ann Schneider to be secretary of the state transportation department. Schneider has been acting secretary since July and previously was chief of operations for the department. Schneider also was chief fiscal officer for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and in the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.

The governor also named John Holton as director of the Illinois Department on Aging.

Quinn also made other appointments, including Jim Larkin as acting director of the Department of Agriculture, Andrew Stolfi as acting director of the Illinois Department of Insurance and John Kim as interim director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Indianapolis Schools Chief Demands Charter Investigation

The Indianapolis Public Schools superintendent wants the state to investigate charter schools that he claims break federal and state laws by turning away homeless and disabled students.

IPS Superintendent Eugene White wrote Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett Monday requesting the investigation into enrollment practices at all charter schools operating within its district boundaries and at 10 schools in particular. He says six schools have threatened to expel students only to give parents the option of withdrawing students to avoid expulsion.

White says 72 students have returned to IPS since the September count date that determines state funding while 27 students have left IPS for charter schools.

Indiana Department of Education spokesman Alex Damron says the state will carefully review documents on the charter schools' enrollment practices provided by IPS.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - October 24, 2011

Lawmakers Return to Springfield for Fall Veto Session

From pension reform to pregnant prisoners, lawmakers returning to Springfield face a packed agenda. Since adjourning in the spring, state legislators have been on standby while Gov. Pat Quinn took his turn.

Quinn used his veto power to alter, cut and outright dismiss measures ranging from the state budget to college scholarships. Now the focus is back on the General Assembly, which returns to the capitol on Tuesday for the fall veto session.

Legislators say they expect to vote on a gambling expansion bill, again, after Gov. Pat Quinn rejected several pillars of the plan they sent him in May. Quinn said he can accept new casinos in Danville, Chicago, two suburban towns, and Rockford. But he is drawing the line at allowing slot machines at racetracks, airports and other locations.

"We have no interest in becoming the Las Vegas of the Midwest," Quinn said during a press conference last week. "We have to maintain our culture (and) our character."

That opposition may jeopardize the entire package. Quinn is betting there will be a lot of negotiations and variations of gambling proposals during the veto session.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has said he hopes lawmakers and the governor can find common ground. Otherwise, a casino for Chicago, which the mayor wants to help ease budget constraints, could be placed on the back burner after finally getting through both chambers for the first time in more than a decade.

The day before he was sworn into office, Gov. Quinn wiped out state money that funds the salaries of regional superintendent. Quinn says regional superintendents are not the state's responsibility, but fall in the hands of local governments.

It will be up to legislators to decide if they will let Quinn's vetoes stand, or if they want to overrule the governor. Those in the offices who continue to work are responsible for things like inspecting school buildings, and certifying teachers and bus drivers, tasks that could have prevented schools from opening if they weren't done.

County regional school superintendents hope to get paid. Thomas Campbell considers himself a patient person. But after going without pay nearly four months, Campbell turned in his letter of resignation as Christian and Montgomery County's Regional Superintendent. He hasn't got a paycheck since he began the job July 1.

"We are elected just like the governor's an elected official, and to suddenly without discussion without sitting down across the table without any type of democratic approach to resolving any issues, we just got lined out of the budget and put out there in no man's land," Campbell said. "I just think it did show a great deal of disrespect. I think it has brought on a lot of disillusionment and disenchantment with what i call common sense governance."

Quinn eliminated their salaries from the budget in May, but support has emerged for a plan to pay them out of local tax dollars.

State support for school transportation was also reduced by Quinn. He also wants to delay how much hospitals get for taking care of Medicaid patients.

While some legislators want to keep overall spending down, others say it's clear the budget legislators approved in the spring doesn't provide enough funds.

Quinn wants to save money by closing a handful of state facilities, including a juvenile prison in Murphysboro, a medium security prison in Lincoln, mental health centers in Chester, Tinley Park and Rockford. Developmental centers in Jacksonville and Dixon would also be affected, and 1,900 state workers could be laid off. Unions and the communities that host those facilities are fighting the proposed shutdowns.

A legislative commission will continue holding hearings this week, and it will begin issuing advisory opinions about the future of these facilities.

Also set for a committee hearing is a bill to prohibit the Department of Corrections from shackling prisoners while they are giving birth. The bill arose after national news stories highlighted that restraints were being used on women during labor.

Look out for another controversial measure too, which pits the governor and consumer advocates against literal powerhouses ComEd and Ameren. Lawmakers narrowly passed a plan that would allow the utilities to raise monthly bills to pay for a modernized power grid. Quinn vetoed it. ComEd CEO Anne Prammagiore argues it's needed.

"A modern grid, while requiring an investment on the front end, would deliver multiple layers of economic benefits over the long run," Prammagiore said. "These benefits are real, and they've been enhanced."

But the Paul Gainer with the Attorney General's office said it's bad for electric customers' wallets.

"ComEd and Ameren have set the bar so low on the performance metrics that they know they will have absolutely no problem meeting those metrics, and getting exactly what they want - certainty, rate hikes, double digit profits," Gainer said.

It's unknown if the utilities have the clout to win over enough legislators to get their plan into law.

Also unclear is the fate of a legislative scholarship program the governor wants abolished. Many legislators want to keep their ability to hand out tuition waivers to students in their districts. But the program has been a magnet for scandal through the years, after some officials awarded the scholarships to campaign contributors' children.

Finally, public employees are on guard. They are concerned about the possible resurgence of a plan to reduce their future retirement benefits. Several bills are expected to move through committees that would eliminate a loophole in pensions for leaders of organized labor, along with revamping the pension boards that oversee systems for city of Chicago and Cook County employees. It is likely legislators will respond to stories about Chicago union leaders receiving both city and union pensions, a practice known as double dipping.

The veto session will run for six days, split over several weeks.

(AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

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