Illinois Public Media News
An old friend from Rod Blagojevich's early political career will be on the stand Monday in the former governor's retrial.
John Wyma was chief of staff when Blagojevich served as a congressman and stayed on as a consultant and fundraiser through Blagojevich's time as governor. He parlayed his relationship with Blagojevich into a very lucrative career as a lobbyist. Clients paid him thousands of dollars a month because he could get meetings with the governor or his staff.
Prosecutors subpoenaed Wyma about some of his business dealings, and in 2008 he provided information that allowed prosecutors to start recording the governor's phone calls. Blagojevich talked about Wyma outside court last Thursday after Wyma started his testimony. Blagojevich seemed unusually thoughtful.
"John Wyma was someone that I thought was a close and good friend and to see him lie like he's lying, understanding that he's doing it because he's being compelled to do it because he may have done some things wrong," he said. "He's afraid that he's going to get prosecuted, doesn't take away the sense of sadness that you feel because this guy was once someone that you thought was a good friend."
Wyma is testifying with a grant of immunity from prosecutors, meaning he can't be prosecuted for any crimes he committed related to this case, provided he tells the truth. He's testifying about conversations he had with Rahm Emanuel about Barack Obama's senate seat just after the 2008 presidential election.
(Photo by Rob Wildeboer/IPR)
A Chicago courtroom could become the unlikely venue for revealing alleged connections between the terrorist group blamed for the 2008 rampage that killed more than 160 people in Mumbai and Pakistan's main intelligence agency, which has come under increased scrutiny following Osama bin Laden's killing.
Jury selection begins Monday in the case against Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana, who is accused of helping a former boarding school friend serve as a scout for the militant group that carried out the three-day attack in India's largest city. Though the accusations against Rana are fairly straightforward, the implications of the trial could be enormous.
To make their case, federal prosecutors may lay out alleged ties between Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group blamed for the attacks, and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as the ISI. The trial comes amid growing suspicion that the ISI was complicit in harboring bin Laden, who was killed by Navy SEALs during a May 2 raid, and could lead to further strains in the already frayed relations between Pakistan and the United States.
The key government witness could be David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American with a troubled past who pleaded guilty last year to laying the groundwork for the Mumbai attack by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Headley, who is cooperating with U.S. officials, told interrogators that the ISI provided training and funds for the attack against India, Pakistan's long nemesis.
Headley told authorities that Rana provided him with cover for a series of scouting missions he conducted in Mumbai. Headley also told interrogators that he was in contact with another militant, who has ties to al-Qaida, as part of a separate plot to bomb a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons that offended Muslims.
"What you'll have now in Chicago is a trial which will undoubtedly demonstrate links between Pakistan government agencies and one of the most competent terrorist organizations operating in South Asia - Lashkar-e-Taiba," said Seth Jones, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp. The trial "just adds more fuel to an already tense situation."
Nearly 100 potential jurors are expected at Chicago's federal courthouse Monday. They'll be asked to fill out forms with a range of questions, from personal views on Islam to knowledge of Pakistani militant groups. Jury selection is expected to last several days.
Experts say Lashkar-e-Taiba, which means "Army of the Pure," was created with the ISI's help in the 1980s as a proxy fighting force to battle with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir. Counterterrorism officials say the group has gained strength with the help of the ISI since then, possibly with the help of retired officers. Pakistani officials have denied any ties with the group.
Lashkar-e-Taiba is accused of carrying out the three-day siege in Mumbai in which 10 gunmen attacked two luxury hotels, a Jewish center and a busy train station in India's financial capital, killing 166 people, including six Americans.
Rana, a Canadian national who has lived in Chicago for years, owns a Chicago-based First World Immigration Services, in the city's South Asian enclave. He and Headley met as teenagers at a Pakistani military boarding school outside Islamabad.
Prosecutors say Rana, who was arrested in 2009, provided cover for Headley by letting him open a First World office in Mumbai and travel as a supposed representative for the agency. He also allegedly helped Headley make travel arrangements as part of the plot against the Danish newspaper that in 2005 printed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, which angered many Muslims worldwide.
Rana is charged with providing material support for terrorism in India and Denmark. In court documents, Rana's attorneys have said he believed Headley was working for Pakistani intelligence. Headley also told authorities that he told Rana he "had been asked to perform espionage work for the ISI," according to a court filing.
"Part of the defense will be that Headley used his connections with ISI to explain the things he was doing," Rana's attorney Patrick Blegen told reporters last week. Rana "has maintained his innocence since the day he was arrested."
However, U.S. District Court Judge Harry Leinenweber ruled that that proposed defense was "objectively unreasonable."
Prosecutors have declined to comment ahead of the trial. A senior Pakistani intelligence official said he hasn't been following the trial and didn't have comment on it.
Some experts doubt the trial will reveal much, saying federal prosecutors may work hard to keep sensitive information from surfacing in the courtroom, and Headley is not the most credible witness. Headley reached a plea deal with prosecutors in the terrorism case in exchange for avoiding the death penalty and previously had been an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration after a drug conviction.
Details of Headley's possible testimony were revealed last year in an Indian government report detailing what he had allegedly told Indian investigators during questioning in Chicago.
In the report, Headley is cited describing how the ISI was deeply involved in planning the Mumbai attacks and how he reported to a man known only as "Major Iqbal," whom he called his Lashkar "handler." But some experts have suggested Iqbal could be a retired ISI officer, or that he may not even exist. In the indictment, his name is listed as unknown, and he's referred to only under the alias "Major Iqbal."
Rana is actually the seventh name on the indictment, and the only defendant in custody. Among the six others charged in absentia are "Major Iqbal" and Sajid Mir, allegedly another Lashkar-e-Taiba supervisor who also "handled" Headley.
Also indicted is Ilyas Kashmiri, the commander of the terror group Harakat-ul Jihad Islami who also is believed by Western intelligence to be al-Qaida's operational chief in Pakistan. During his travels for spying and training, Headley allegedly met with Kashmiri in Pakistan, and Kashmiri gave him instructions on how to carry out the Danish newspaper bombing, which ultimately never occurred.
White House Chief of Staff William Daley delivered the commencement speech at the May 15, 2011 graduation ceremony on the University of Illinois' Urbana campus. Daley came on board as President Barack Obama's chief of staff in January. Daley acknowledged the job market is more competitive today than when he graduated from college, but he said that is an opportunity for innovation and creativity in the global marketplace. He also emphasized the importance of living abroad and experiencing other cultures, saying an expanded worldview is important in the workforce.
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
The FDA has approved a new drug for the treatment of hepatitis C, a viral disease that attacks the liver and can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer.
In the U.S., existing medications cure only about 50 percent of patients.
Dr. Bruce Bacon of Saint Louis University led a clinical trial for the new drug, boceprevir.
Bacon says adding boceprevir to the standard two-drug treatment significantly improved cure rates, especially for patients who have been treated before and failed to recover.
Most Americans with hepatitis C have what's known as the genotype 1 form of the virus.
"The numbers are more like 20 percent with the standard therapy being retreated versus about 60 to 65 percent cure rate with the addition of boceprevir," Bacon said, referring to people with genotype 1.
A similar drug, telaprevir, is expected to get FDA approval by the end of the month.
Dr. Adrian Di Bisceglie, also from Saint Louis University, helped test how patients responded when telaprevir was added to the current two-drug treatment.
"In a treatment regimen that has telaprevir, the cure rates or rates of sustained virologic response go from the 40 percent number that I mentioned in patients with genotype 1, to 75 percent," Di Bisceglie said.
Both boceprevir (trade name Victrelis, by Merck) and telaprevir (trade name Incivek, by Vertex) are expected on the market in June.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than three million Americans have hepatitis C, and about three-quarters of them don't know they have it.
A pair of Illinois men and a gun rights group have sued the state to try to force it to allow concealed weapons. The lawsuit comes eight days after legislation to allow state residents to carry hidden guns failed.
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in federal court by former corrections officer Michael Moore of Champaign, farmer Charles Hooks of Percy in southeastern Illinois and the Bellevue, Wash.-based Second Amendment Foundation.
They argue Illinois' prohibition against concealed weapons violates the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment and what they see as Americans' right to carry guns for self-defense.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office said she's reviewing the lawsuit.
On May 5 the state House voted down the bill to allow concealed guns. Illinois and Wisconsin are the only states that ban concealed weapons.
Schools, college scholarships and health care for the poor would face sharp cuts under a budget approved Friday by the Illinois House in a rare show of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.
Meanwhile, partisan battles continued at full force in the Senate.
Democrats approved budget measures without giving Republicans a chance to review them. Republicans complained loudly and accused Democrats of spending more than Illinois can afford.
"What you offer is an increase in spending," said Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine. "It guarantees that we will borrow yet again to pay our bills."
Although both the House and Senate passed new state budgets, there are major differences between the two versions. Gov. Pat Quinn has his own proposal, too.
Reaching a deal that can pass both legislative chambers and get the governor's signature could still prove challenging.
"I don't expect that this budget will be the final spending plan," Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said shortly after House members voted for painful cuts to state services. "We're not sending any ultimatums by the adoption of this budget today."
The House plan would spend about $25.2 billion from the state's general account for the budget year that begins July 1. That's about $600 million, or 2.4 percent, below the current budget.
It would achieve that reduction mostly by cutting education and human services.
State support for schools would fall by about $169 million, or 2.4 percent. The Monetary Award Program would lose $17 million for college scholarships, a 4.2 percent cut. In human services, Medicaid bills would be paid more slowly, many would be trimmed 1 percent and administrative spending would drop $181 million.
"There was a lot of hand-wringing and a lot of tears" in the appropriations committee that set those amounts, said Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, D-Chicago. "We can go home to our communities and say, 'We done our job, we cut the budget.'"
Some legislators felt the cuts went too far.
The House version of the budget is about $1 billion smaller than the version approved by the Senate on Friday and $2 billion below Quinn's proposal.
A key difference between the House and Senate plans is in revenue projections. Senate Democrats are counting on state government taking in about $1 billion more than the House estimates it will. That additional money allows the Senate to avoid deep human service cuts.
Champaign School Board President Sue Grey says she doesn't mind if the search for a new school superintendent is a lengthy one.
Grey said the process of finding a permanent successor to replace Arthur Culver could take anywhere from four to nine months, beginning in July. At a news conference Friday, Grey said she wants the search process to be open and transparent, with as much public input as possible.
Toward that end, Grey said the public will be invited to send in comments about what qualities a new superintendent should have --- through the Unit Four website. She also hopes to see a series of informal meetings with community members.
"We hope that we can do this in a relaxed, informal way," Grey said. "Where we can just have conversation and learn from you all, what it is that you feel is in the best interest of the district, as far as what superintendent --- what you would like to see."
Grey said the Unit Four school board will also be taking applications to serve on a search committee to oversee the search for a new superintendent --- the deadline to apply is June 15th. Grey said the board will decide within a month on an interim superintendent to take over when Arthur Culver steps down at the end of June. That person will be someone from outside the district.
Grey said the school board has decided to look at retired superintendents in the area, instead of Unit Four employees who carry the required superintendents' certification. She said putting a current employee into the superintendent's post on a short-term basis would be too disruptive.
"You take that person, and you move them out of the key position that they are serving within the district, and then you have to find someone to plug their hole, and so forth and so on," Grey said. "We felt that it was in the best interests of the district to get a candidate in as an interim that could just help us keep the ship sailing smoothly and on course."
Grey said the Unit Four School Board is reviewing a list --- provided by the Illinois Association of School Boards --- of retired superintendents in the area who would be willing to return to work on an interim basis. She said the school board expects to discuss the issue in executive session on May 16th, and make a choice on an interim superintendent in the first half of June.
The interim superintendent will take over for the departing Arthur Culver on July 1st. Grey said the Champaign school board would then begin its search for someone to take the job on a permanent basis.
A company that closed a plant in Coles County two years ago is coming back.
Houston-based NCI Building Systems, Inc. operated a plant in Mattoon for about 20 years until it was forced to close in 2009 because of downturns in the economy.
The company manufactures insulated wall systems for large commercial and industrial developments.
Angela Griffin, the president of Coles Together, said the closure left a dent in the community by eliminating about 45-to-50 jobs. She said many of those workers have been able to find new jobs within the last couple of years.
"There may still be some that are on unemployment, and hopefully they can reach back to those people and get them," Griffin said.
She said the company's return is about a $20 million investment in the community, which she estimates will initially lead to about 25 new jobs.
Mattoon beat out four other sites outside of Illinois to host the plant.
"We thought we had lost them for good," she said. "Their industry had taken a big hit, and they had vacant buildings in other states. We thought it was a slim chance that they would bring production back to Central Illinois. So, we were very pleased.
Planned Parenthood of Indiana says it will cover the health care costs of current Medicaid patients for at least another week after losing much of its public funding under a new state law.
The reproductive health care organization said Friday donations will allow it to extend care at least through May 21. Spokeswoman Kate Shepherd says it's received donations from at least 36 states since April 26, the day before the Legislature passed a law to withhold the Medicaid funding.
A federal judge refused this week to temporarily block the law while Planned Parenthood fights it.
Planned Parenthood says it serves about 9,300 Medicaid patients at its 28 Indiana clinics. It's not accepting new Medicaid patients while the court battle continues and some services are being put off until later.
In a year when Wisconsin lawmakers have clamped down on union members' bargaining rights, Illinois legislators passed a measure that makes it harder for teachers unions to go on strike.
But in Illinois, that happened with the unions' consent.
The unions, as well as education advocates, school boards and administrators all signed on to the carefully negotiated measure that was passed by the house Thursday and is now on its way to the governor's desk.
Representative Jehan Gordon, a Peoria Democrat, said it's a first step toward ensuring Illinois children receive the best education.
"Many of the things that we are seeing around the country right now, you find it very difficult for governmental bodies and labor to come together, at the table, and have some of these hard, difficult conversations and find a collective compromise," Gordon said.
Schools will be able to more easily dump poor-performing teachers, even if they have seniority. Teachers will have to earn ratings of "proficient" and "excellent" in order to earn tenure. And the package allows Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school day and requires teachers and districts make their contract negotiations public during bargaining disputes.
The bill took months to negotiate. Advance Illinois, an education policy group made up of business and civic leaders, was pushing for many of the changes governing seniority and tenure, as was the out-of-state group Stand for Children.
Robin Steans, Advance Illinois' executive director, said the legislation is significant nationally both for what it mandates and for the fact that it was worked out with the support of teachers unions.
"I'm getting calls from my colleagues all around the country about this," said Steans, who was in Springfield for the vote. "They want to see the language. They want to know how we got at this....[Illinois is] part of a bigger national conversation. I think it's fair to say we just jumped to the head of the pack. We got really good, hard stuff done but we got it done without a lot of drama and a lot of noise and a lot of fighting."
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis helped write the bill, but she says unions essentially had a gun to their head. If they hadn't come to the table, things could have been much worse, Lewis said.
"There's Wisconsin, there's Indiana, there's Pennsylvania, Ohio," Lewis said. "This is going nationwide. We're trying to ameliorate some of the worst parts of what that bill had."
The state's two largest unions lauded the negotiated legislation as "good for kids, fair to adults" when it was first unveiled in mid-April. The state senate passed it then 59-0.
But after initially agreeing to support the law, the more strident Chicago Teachers Union now is balking over what some call technicalities but what Lewis says are attacks on collective bargaining rights.
"We want to be a part of what helps kids," Lewis said. "But the attack on our collective bargaining does not help kids. Anyone who says it does is not being honest."
Lewis is upset about a provision that could impact a lawsuit the union has against Chicago Public Schools over massive teacher layoffs last summer. She's also fighting over how many CTU members would be needed to authorize a strike. Negotiations to resolve those issues are continuing.
Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel praised the legislation, as did U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Governor Pat Quinn has said he would sign the historic legislation.
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