Illinois Public Media News
Ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich told jurors Thursday about his life and blue collar roots while testifying at his corruption retrial in Chicago.
Introducing himself to jurors, he said, "I used to be your governor" and "I'm here today to tell you the truth."
The testimony has been mostly autobiographical, though at times Blagojevich has made obvious attempts to link this background to the federal charges he now faces.
He proceeded to talk about his upbringing in a working-class Chicago neighborhood. Blagojevich spoke in a low voice and remembered his first hit in little league baseball. Jurors watched him intently.
Blagojevich described his first jobs as a shoeshine boy and then working in a packing company. He talked about his father leaving home to work on the Alaskan pipeline. Blagojevich said he also worked on the pipeline, washing pots and pans.
Blagojevich's voice broke when he spoke about his deceased parents. He later choked up when he began to tell the story of how he met his wife, Patti. That prompted Judge James Zagel to send the jury out of the room, and call for a lunch break.
Earlier, Blagojevich addressed his days as an undergrad at Northwestern University. He told jurors that he often felt inferior compared to other students. But he said he got good grades, and was a history buff.
"I had a man crush on Alexander Hamilton," Blagojevich said.
In talking about Winston Churchill and how leaders made decisions, the ex-governor offered a preview of his defense to the corruption charges he faces, some of which are based off secretly taped phone calls with his aides.
Blagojevich said, like Churchill, he believes in "full discussion," that leaders "should be free" to bounce ideas off advisers, to "end up in the right place."
Later, talking about law school, Blagojevich said he applied to a number of top schools, including Harvard University. The rejection letter, he said, "came back pretty quick." Blagojevich eventually went to Pepperdine University in California. His first year, he said, was "almost catastrophic," because he wanted to read history books instead of law books.
Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked him about his friendship with Lon Monk. Monk is a former Blagojevich aide who testified against him in exchange for a lighter sentence for himself.
Blagojevich said he met Monk while studying abroad in England during law school, and it developed into "a lifelong, very close friendship."
He talked about how different his upbringing and family were Monk's, whose father was a successful California obstetrician and gynecologist. Blagojevich said he "became very close" with Monk's family. He said they had a "beautiful house...with peacocks in the back yard."
"I love Lon Monk," Blagojevich said of his once-close friend. Asked if he trusted him, the ex-governor said, "Absolutely. Infinitely."
The ex-governor talked about how he worked as a paralegal for Ed Vrdolyak, at the time a lawyer and Chicago alderman.
"I didn't do a lot of law," Blagojevich said, noting that his job consisted of doing campaign work for, among others, then-Mayor Jane Byrne, and picking up cheesecakes for the alderman's driver.
Blagojevich said Vrdolyak later reneged on a promise to hire him, and again on a promise to get him a job with the Cook County State's Attorney's office. He was hired anyway, working in the office while Richard M. Daley was state's attorney.
"While he was my boss, I never saw him," said Blagojevich. He talked about his work in the traffic division, and later on domestic violence cases.
No doubt in an effort to make sure the jury knew he was not professionally familiar with the laws he is accused of breaking, Blagojevich attorney Aaron Goldstein asked the ex-governor a series of questions about his struggles to pass the bar exam, and his experience in private practice. Blagojevich testified that he never worked on any federal case, nonetheless one involving the fraud or extortion statutes.
Blagojevich's attorney cited his tendency for profanity. Blagojevich then apologized directly to jurors. He said when you hear the curses and swear words, "it makes you wince." Blagojevich called himself a jerk for swearing.
Once his own attorneys are done questioning him, Blagojevich is sure to face blistering cross-examination from the government. Prosecutors are likely to replay FBI wiretaps that captured his blunt talk.
Blagojevich's testimony comes on the heels of a terrible day in court for the defense Wednesday.
They called Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to the stand. He testified for only four minutes. They also called Jesse Jackson Jr. who said he never offered Blagojevich money in return for being appointed to Barack Obama's old senate seat.
But under cross examination by prosecutors, Jackson offered up a whole new allegation of extortion. He says Blagojevich asked for a $25,000 dollar campaign contribution, but Jackson didn't pay. Later, Jackson's wife, Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson, applied for, but was denied a job in the Blagojevich administration. At a subsequent meeting Jackson says the governor referred to the job, then snapped his fingers and pointed in an Elvis-like way and said, "You should have given me that $25,000."
Jurors wouldn't have heard this story if Blagojevich's lawyers hadn't called Jackson to the stand. The anecdote is like an additional criminal count against the former governor, compliments of his own defense team.
Blagojevich's attorneys didn't call any witnesses during his first trial last year. That jury deadlocked on 23 of 24 counts, including allegations that Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
One state lawmaker is taking a gamble on a big expansion to the state's gaming industry, and so far it isn't paying out.
The latest plan to grow the number of casinos has hit a snag.
Skokie House Democrat Lou Lang says a short drive across the Illinois border shows just how much money the state is losing out on.
"If you go to gaming enterprises in other states and never get out of your car and just drive through the parking lot around the states that surround Illinois, you'd see nothing but Illinois license plates," Lang said.
Five new casinos, slot machines at race tracks and video gaming are all packed into Lang's proposal. That was enough for a House panel to give it a thumbs down. Opponents call it overreaching and a monumental expansion. Existing riverboat casinos railed against it, saying the gambling market is already saturated. Tom Swoik, who represents those casinos, says revenues have dropped by nearly a third and building more won't generate new dollars.
"That's like saying that a third of the houses available are vacant but let's help the economy by building more houses," Swoik said.
Governor Quinn has indicated his willingness to discuss a Chicago casino. Lang could scale back what he's asking for, but he won't have much time to change it before the legislature is set to adjourn next week.
Democratic leaders in Springfield say they're getting closer to reaching a deal on a state budget.
The state House has already passed a bipartisan spending plan. But it would appropriate $1 billion less than the version approved by Senate Democrats. Now, Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, says he's willing to go along with the House's $32 billion proposal.
"I think we're going to have a very positive experience here. I know we're going to have a balanced budget," Cullerton said Thursday. "Each chamber has passed a balanced budget. So this is just a matter of how much more we can save and pay down of our existing debt."
Cullerton said he's beginning to negotiate with House Speaker Michael Madigan to reconcile their two budget proposals.
Meanwhile, an Illinois Senate committee is advancing a plan to pay down state debt by borrowing $6 billion. Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to borrow more than $8 billion to pay down a backlog of overdue bills. But many Republicans oppose the idea.
(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Radio)
The state agency in charge of health insurance for public employees says it is going forward with a plan to drop Health Alliance HMO and Humana as options for state and university employees' medical insurance.
Urbana-based Health Alliance and Humana have protested the move.
The state's decision comes in spite of a vote Wednesday morning by the bipartisan Commission on Governmental Forecasting and Accountability (CGFA) to end self-insured/Open Access Plans for state employees, which is what the state planned to move employees to in areas where the HMO/Blue Cross Blue Shield plan isn't available. The vote potentially sets up a constitutional clash over the fate of health insurance for about 100,000 state and university workers.
Moving many employees to this sort of plan is how Governor Pat Quinn's administration had been planning to save up to $100 million a year.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a ruling last week stating that legislators don't have the power to interfere with specific contracts. However, despite Madigan's ruling, State Senator and CGFA member Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign) said the commission has the authority to weigh in on policy changes. He also noted that the commission's vote reflects a major policy shift in self-insurance at the state level.
"And that's something we have consent power over," Frerichs said. "We don't have the ability to consent to individual contracts, but this big policy shift we do. We rejected that, and I think that will necessitate rebidding of the whole package."
State Senator Matt Murphy (R-Palatine) also sits on the commission. He said the vote by CGFA was done as an attempt to get all parties back to the bargaining table.
"My hope is that everybody involved in this process, rather than rush into court and having lawsuits, can all sit down together and try and perhaps try and rebid it, come up with a different plan," Murphy said.
It is unclear if the commission's vote is binding, and could send matters into a tailspin. The Department of Healthcare and Family Services is going forward as if that vote was insignificant.
"We followed the letter of the law," DHFS spokeswoman Stacey Solano said. "Everything was done fairly, it was done ethically, so why would we reopen the bidding?"
Downstate legislators have been highly critical of the decision to drop Health Alliance. They have shown no signs of letting down.
Meanwhile, many of the employees and retirees with Health Alliance as medical insurance say they don't want a new provider because they fear they will be forced to switch doctors. They are also concerned they will pay more out of pocket on doctor's visits.
As it stands now, state employees have until June 17 to decide what provider they want for medical coverage. The state is also considering opening another enrollment period this fall.
A study out, known as the Illinois Youth Survey, shows fewer Illinois teens are smoking cigarettes and drinking large amounts of alcohol at once, but the survey says marijuana use appears to be steady.
Beth Welbes with the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois said nationally, marijuana use is going up. She said the state findings show more teens are downplaying the risks associated with smoking marijuana.
"The state rates and the state estimates are really valuable, especially for state policy makers because they can take a look and they can see where do we need to direct our resources in terms of substance abuse prevention and other health areas," Welbes said.
The survey also reported a drop in DUIs among high school seniors, and a decrease in the use of illicit drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine.
An admitted American terrorist who scouted sites in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks is expected to face intense questioning from defense attorneys Wednesday when he returns to the stand as the government's star witness in the trial of a Chicago businessman accused of helping him.
David Coleman Headley's testimony has alleged close coordination between Pakistan's main intelligence agency and militants in the three-day rampage that killed more than 160 people in India's largest city.
Headley, who pleaded guilty in plotting the attacks, is the government's top witness in the trial of Chicago businessman Tahawwur Rana. His testimony also comes at a pivotal moment in U.S.-Pakistan relations, 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.
Defense attorneys get their first chance to undermine Headley's credibility before jurors on Wednesday. Attorneys for Rana, who is accused of helping Headley establish cover in Mumbai and for another plot in Denmark, have called Headley manipulative and claimed he had other reasons in implicating Rana, his longtime friend.
"Some of the evidence that we expect to come in will show that David Headley absolutely had additional motives, including protecting his wife," Rana attorney Charles Swift told reporters this week. "There's written proof that she knew and there's not going to be that same proof where Dr. Rana's concerned."
Federal prosecutors have guided Headley through days of testimony where he provided rare insight into the web of international terrorism.
Pakistan has deflected the accusations and repeated what it's maintained since 2008: The Inter-Services Intelligence agency, known as ISI, had no links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani-based terrorists who claimed credit for the Mumbai attacks.
The ISI knew about and helped fund and direct the Mumbai plot, Headley said.
A "frogman" in Pakistan's military even helped select a landing site in Mumbai where Lashkar terrorists would arrive by boat, he testified. Headley recalled an instance a few years before the Mumbai plot conception when Lashkar leaders wanted to get signoff from the ISI before making a decision that could have diplomatic consequences with the U.S.
"They coordinated with each other, and ISI provided assistance to Lashkar," Headley said.
Headley, who said he started working with Lashkar in 2000, said the Pakistan-based terror group, and the ISI operate under the same umbrella. As Headley scouted sites for targets in Mumbai, he met regularly and received money from someone he said was an ISI major, known only as "Major Iqbal."
Iqbal and Headley's regular Lashkar contact, Sajid Mir, both gave him the same instructions for where to go and what to scope out, he said. Headley would provide videos he took of sights in Mumbai to Iqbal and then to Mir. Headley said Mir and Iqbal were in contact with each other. Headley has testified that Rana was apprised of all developments and largely approved.
In October 2008, Headley said he and his Lashkar and ISI handlers all met together in Pakistan, about a month before the attacks. During this meeting, the men also talked for the first time about a separate plot to attack a Danish newspaper that in 2005 had printed cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, Headley said. That plot was foiled by law enforcement.
"I suggested we only focus on the cartoonist and the editor," Headley testified of a later meeting with Mir. "He said, 'All Danes are responsible for this.'"
Prosecutors showed emails among the three men - some of them forwarded to Rana - detailing points on the Mumbai attacks and the aftermath.
Defense attorneys have raised issues with Headley's credibility. He 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 heroin conviction.
Though Rana is on trial, much of Headley's testimony so far has focused on his dealings with Iqbal, Mir and Abdur Rehman Hashim Syed, identified by prosecutors as a retired Pakistani military with links to Iqbal. All three are charged in absentia.
(AP Photo/Tom Gianni)
Rod Blagojevich's attorneys are set to begin their first defense of the former Illinois governor in his second trial on corruption charges.
A person familiar with the defense plans says new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. will be among the opening witnesses. The person spoke on condition of anonymity, citing not being authorized to speak publicly.
In the first trial last year, Blagojevich's attorneys rested without calling a single witness. The jury later deadlocked on 23 of the 24 counts against the former governor, including allegations that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat in exchange for campaign funds or a job for himself.
The defense attorneys say the two elected officials could help prove Blagojevich's actions weren't crimes.
Ethics Commission Upholds Decision to Drop Health Alliance HMO, Humana
There's disappointing news for state and university employees and retirees who had been holding out hope Illinois would continue to offer Health Alliance and Humana health insurance.
Same-sex couples in Illinois can start obtaining civil union licenses Wednesday, June 1.
The Champaign County Clerk's office says it will be fully staffed to issue the licenses, which will cost four dollars. Kevin Johnson of the Up Center of Champaign County said he is planning a large gathering at the clerk's office when the civil union law goes into effect.
"You know, a lot of people feel it's not truly equal because it is not marriage," Johnson said. "However, for many of us, it is the first step of being recognized by the government as couples."
Couples are required to get the license from the county clerk's office in the area where the ceremony takes place. Both people in a relationship have to show up to get the license. Johnson estimates anywhere between 20-to-30 people will immediately get the licenses in Champaign County on Wednesday.
Similar to getting a marriage license, couples must have a valid form of ID and be ready to answer basic questions like parent's names. Couples are encouraged to call their county clerk's office if they have questions about civil unions. They cannot take part in a ceremony until the day after the license is issued. They also have 60 days to use that license or it expires.
Kathie Spegal, 67, of Champaign has been with her partner, Lynn Sprout, since 2002, and she said she never thought she would live to see the day when civil unions would be legal in Illinois.
"It's not going to change how we live," Spegal said. "We still pay taxes. We still do everything that we've always done. It's just that we know how that it's all legal."
Spegal said her civil union ceremony will take place at McKinley Memorial Presbyterian Church, where he exchanged vows with her partner as part of a "holy union" in 2004.
But churches can opt out of performing civil unions, according to Bernard Cherkasov, president of the group Equality Illinois.
"No religious institution will be required to officiate or perform civil unions," Cherkasov explained. "But every agency performing state functions - accepting public funds to perform that function - will be required to comply with all existing laws and statutes, including respecting the civil unions law."
Civil unions share many of the rights that accompany traditional marriage, including the power to make medical decisions for a partner and being able to share insurance policies. In order to get insurance benefits, a couple must obtain a separate document from the county clerk proving the civil union happened.
When the law takes effect, Illinois will become the sixth state in the United States to allow for some form of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is re-deploying 500 officers to police beats around the city, but some officials say the plan doesn't satisfy Emanuel's campaign promise to put 1,000 officers on the streets.
Emanuel said at a Tuesday news conference that he is putting 500 existing Chicago police officers on beats. He said that would help build relations with communities and eventually drop crime. The officers are already on the street, but don't necessarily have specific beats. Emanuel called it a down payment on his campaign promise to add 1,000 officers to beats.
"I can wait to find the resources, or I can basically say, 'Are we most efficient in applying our officers to where crime is,'" he said.
But Alderman LaTasha Thomas said she was expecting 1,000 new officers, not the re-deployment of officers already on the force.
"They're taking a step, but this is not the thousand to me," Thomas said.
The head of the police union, Michael Shields, said in a statement, "The department has taken hundreds of highly-skilled street officers and transformed them overnight into hundreds of highly-skilled beat officers. What's the difference?"
Emanuel said some of the cops will be deployed to high crime areas.
(Photo by Tony Arnold/IPR)
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