(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
The prosecution has begun an aggressive cross-examination of Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the ousted Illinois governor's corruption retrial.
Prosecutor Reid Schar asked Blagojevich if he was a convicted liar. Blagojevich answered yes.
Prosecutors likely relished the chance to grill Blagojevich. At his first trial last year - in which he was convicted of lying to the FBI - the ousted governor never took the stand and prosecutors never had a chance to cross-examine him.
During five days of questions from his own attorney, Blagojevich denied all the allegations against him, including that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
Earlier, Blagojevich tried to carefully explain conversations he had with his advisers in late 2008 about various ways he could leverage his power to appoint a U.S. senator.
The conversations were secretly recorded by the FBI, and the jury in Blagojevich's federal corruption trial has already heard them.
At one point, Blagojevich is heard talking with members of his inner circle about his desire to be appointed Secretary of Health and Human Services by President Barack Obama.
"If [HHS] was available to me, I could [appoint Obama friend] Valerie Jarrett in a heartbeat," Blagojevich said on the call.
Asked on Thursday morning by his attorney, Aaron Goldstein, to explain that statement, Blagojevich analogized it to saying, "If I could play center field for the Cubs, I would do that in a heartbeat, too."
Blagojevich testified he understood the cabinet appointment was not going to happen. He said that's because, in part, one of his friends and closest political supporters, the SEIU's Tom Balanoff, told him it was not a possibility.
Why, then, was Blagojevich still talking about the idea on wiretapped conversations with his advisers?
"It goes to one of my insecurities," he explained. "I was embarrassed by the flat out dismissal of the idea by [Balanoff]."
The ex-governor testified that he was "trying to not look too irrelevant to my staff."
Guided by Goldstein, Blagojevich reiterated that no actual deal was offered involving the cabinet job and a Jarrett appointment. He explained that no decision had been made.
Labor Union Gig
The testimony then moved on to another alleged scheme, that Blagojevich would appoint Jarrett if Obama was able to arrange for the governor to become a national coordinator for the labor advocacy group "Change to Win."
Blagojevich testified that such a job would put him in a position to "have my cake and eat it too." He said it would allow him to make money to help his family's finances, while being involved in an issue important to him, and allow for a possible - though admittedly unlikely - political comeback.
But once again, Blagojevich told jurors he wasn't sold on the idea and didn't try to make it happen.
"I never decided to do it," Blagojevich testified. "I ultimately didn't like the idea."
Non-Profit Advocacy Leader
Instead, Blagojevich said he started to focus on another idea he found "more appealing." He wanted to land a leading role at what would be a new non-profit that would advocate for children's healthcare.
At this point in his testimony, Blagojevich tried to further an underlying theme to his defense: that he was influenced by the words and assistance of his advisers.
Regarding the non-profit idea, Blagojevich said he talked to his top government lawyer, Bill Quinlan, "constantly and continuously" about how to form such a group.
Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from employing an "advice of counsel" defense to the charges he faces. But he is allowed to state that informal advice from his staff contributed to his "state of mind." Blagojevich insists he was acting "in good faith."
Getting to Rahm
On one of the wiretapped phone calls, Blagojevich is heard chatting with his former aide, Doug Scofield, about the non-profit idea. They were trying to figure out the best way to get a message to then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, to see if he'd be willing to approach some big Obama donors to provide start-up cash for the advocacy group.
The ex-governor said he was being clear to Scofield that he didn't want there to be any commitments made to Emanuel, who at the time was the incoming White House chief of staff. They planned to ask John Wyma, an insider who was close to both Emanuel and Blagojevich, to be the emissary.
"I didn't want him to give the wrong impression that I was promising something I hadn't decided on," Blagojevich testified, referring, in part, to the U.S. Senate seat.
Blagojevich acknowledged he believed it would be "highly unlikely" for Emanuel to agree to help set up the advocacy group, but added, "Why not see if he'd be willing to help? You never know."
The ex-governor said he did not make the call personally, because he was "frankly being sensitive to Rahm."
The message apparently never got to Emanuel, who is now the mayor of Chicago. Testifying last week as a witness for the defense, Emanuel said he was never approached about a potential deal involving the Senate seat, and an advocacy group.
More Emanuel Contact
Earlier on Thursday, Blagojevich testified he talked, directly, to Emanuel three times about the Senate appointment.
The ex-governor said he raised the idea of appointing Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to the Senate, in exchange for some sort of possible legislative deal with her father, House Speaker Mike Madigan.
Blagojevich said he believed Emanuel was "pleasantly surprised" that the governor was considering a Madigan appointment.
"[Emanuel's] a sensible guy and understood the politics as well as the good things that could be done," Blagojevich said on the stand.
Madigan "Mega Deal"
Blagojevich testified that "throughout the entire period, [Lisa Madigan] was always on my mind" as a Senate pick.
Blagojevich referred to a possible deal involving the Madigans as the "mega deal." He said he directed his deputy governor, Bob Greenlee, to prepare a document containing a legislative wish list that could be presented to Speaker Madigan.
"I love that document," Blagojevich said, noting it included an expansion of state-funded healthcare, passage of a statewide construction bill, and a written promise from Madigan that he would seek no sales or income tax increases.
"I couldn't get any of it done without Michael Madigan unless I found creative ways around him," Blagojevich testified. "But we needed him to do this."
Describing other items on the document, including climate change and poverty reduction initiatives, Blagojevich was warned by Judge James Zagel to read the list "without your campaign speech."
And he would have help making the deal, Blagojevich said. The governor said he had conversations about it with a number of U.S. Senate Democrats, including Nevada's Harry Reid, Illinois' Dick Durbin and New Jersey's Robert Menendez. He said they wanted Lisa Madigan to be appointed, and it was his hope that - should he choose to go through with the deal - "they would be the ones to broker [and] negotiate" it.
Blagojevich has yet to be cross-examined by prosecutors. But they are likely to point out, as they often have, that there was, in fact, no Madigan "deal," because the Madigans were not approached about it.
The former governor and his attorney tried to stay one step ahead of that argument. Blagojevich testified he was trying to "line up everyone I could [in support of the deal] before [making] the ask."
(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
School lunches and breakfasts are sometimes a lifeline for children whose families face problems affording healthy food. School officials understand that and are extending school meal programs into the summer.
Starting Monday, Champaign Unit 4 food service crews will bring breakfasts and lunches to four community centers - they'll be available free to children under age 18.
Unit 4 food service director Mary Davis says the federally-funded program is there to fill the gap when school lets out and children on free or reduced-price lunches still need food.
"Especially now where jobs are hard to find and so money isn't coming into a household like it was, this is going to help all those households," Davis said. "It'll take a worry off their mind because it's both breakfast and lunch. So it does help."
Davis said people at the sites won't ask for proof of need. She said she expects the nine sites across the Champaign area will give out about a thousand breakfasts and up to two thousand school lunches every weekday through the end of July.
Six of those sites are open to anyone - the sites at the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club (201 E. Park Ave.), First Presbyterian Church (302 W. Church), Douglass Community Center (512 E. Grove) and Jericho Church (1601 W. Bloomington Rd.)open Monday. Sites at Carrie Busey and Stratton schools open June 13th.
On Friday, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin is expected to visit another school meal program funded by the Department of Agriculture. Decatur's Boys and Girls Club is one of several sites in that city where the Summer Food Service Program is also taking place.
The daily deal website Groupon has filed to sell shares to the public, stoking excitement about a new tech boom in Chicago.
Groupon plans to raise as much $750 million and says it will use the money for working capital, including buying other companies.
Last year, Forbes called Groupon the fastest-growing company ever, and anticipation of a Groupon IPO has been growing ever since the company reportedly spurned a $6 billion buyout offer from Google.
Waverly Deutsch is a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. She says this is a huge deal for Chicago's tech scene.
"Either in 2000 or 2001, BusinessWeek featured a cover article that was, 'How Did Chicago Entirely Miss the Tech Boom?' They can't say that this time around," Deutsch said.
In its IPO filing, Groupon says sales grew from $3 million in the second quarter of 2009 to $645 million in the first quarter of this year. The company says its ticker symbol will be GRPN.
State Representative Jason Barickman says he is running for the State Senate in the newly redrawn 53rd Senate District --- and for the seat held by his processor in the House --- Onarga Republican Shane Cultra.
During a tour of towns within the new 53rd district borders, Barickman, a Champaign attorney and chair of the Champaign County GOP, said he wants to straighten out Illinois' business climate, which he calls a national laughing-stock.
"Our business policies in the state are a disaster for small and mid-sized business owners," he said. "This state needs a different approach to how it governs and how it attracts businesses to come here rather than to leave."
If Barickman wins the 2012 senate race, it would be a first for him. He was appointed to his statehouse seat last fall following Cultra's move to the senate. Cultra had replaced Dan Rutherford, who is now state Treasurer.
Cultra said he will make his own campaign plans known later. He said pending legal challenges to the proposed redistricted maps could change their ultimate design. But Barickman said he believes that the maps passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature will go into effect without changes, noting that House Republican Chapin Rose of Mahomet has already indicated he'll run in the re-drawn 51st Senate District that includes all or part of 10 counties. Meanwhile, Republican House member Dan Brady of Bloomington said he will run for re-election in the newly redrawn 105th House District, which makes up half of the new 53rd Senate District.
The proposed 53rd district includes parts of McLean, Livingston, Ford, Woodford, Iroquois and Vermillion counties. Barickman's family has farmed in Livingston County since the 1830s. Barickman would have to move into the district from Champaign County if elected, and he said he plans to relocate somewhere between Normal and Pontiac.
"I have long talked about my interest in coming back towards McLean County, Livingston County where we farmed, and that is certainly on the horizon," said Barickman. "That's long been our intention, and we look forward to fulfilling that."
(Photo courtesy of Jason Barickman)
(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)
For much of his time on the stand in his corruption retrial, former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been engaging, articulate, funny and most importantly, believable, but that's changing, and on Wednesday he was struggling to explain his own words to jurors.
His attorney, Aaron Goldstein, started leading him through some of the more damning evidence related to appointing a senator to replace Barack Obama. Even with his lawyer's softball questions, Blagojevich was flustered.
On one tape, Blagojevich talks about Valerie Jarrett, an adviser to Obama. Blagojevich says Jarrett knows that he's willing to appoint her to the Senate. He wonders how much she wants the position and how hard she'll push to get Blagojevich an appointment to Obama's cabinet.
Blagojevich insists the two weren't connected. Goldstein asked what Blagojevich meant when he talked about this. Instead of answering, Blagojevich reread the transcript while mumbling and finally said "I don't know what I'm saying here," and then asked his attorney to help him.
The ousted Illinois governor is expected to testify further Thursday about the allegation that he sought to sell or trade President Barack Obama's vacated U.S. Senate seat.
The 54-year-old faces 20 criminal counts, including attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit bribery. He denies all wrongdoing.
The Quinn administration's decision to line up new health insurance providers for state employees is now facing a challenge from organized labor.
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees has filed a grievance against the state over the decision to drop two longstanding insurance providers.
AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall says the providers who won the state contracts over Health Alliance and Humana don't cover many of the doctors that state employees have used for years.
"Our grievance seeks a remedy that the current contracts would be extended so -- at a minimum -- that all of those providers could be signed up on similar plans with the new networks, and if they can't be, that Health Alliance would continue to be a contractor for the coming fiscal year," Lindall said.
The state has given employees until June 17 to sign up with a new insurer - AFSCME is advising its 55,000 members to hold off making their benefit choice until right before the deadline.
Lindall charges that the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services hasn't given any evidence that workers will get the same coverage at the same cost as the current plans. He calls that a violation of AFSCME's contract.
The union is also exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. Department of Healthcare and Family Services Director Julie Hamos predicts they won't see much success.
"Losing bidders don't typically do that well in the courts. It's a procurement process. And we followed the law we followed it to a T," said Hamos. "That has now been affirmed. So, anybody can sue, there are a lot of lawyers in Illinois."
Heallth Alliance is exploring legal action of its own. Spokeswoman Jane Hayes the company is examining all options and trying to keep members in mind and what's best for them.
State lawmakers approved a bill that would restore Health Alliance's contract for two more years - but it's possible that governor Pat Quinn could veto the measure. State officials say the new contracts will save Illinois about $100 million over the next year.
Couples entering into civil unions under the new law that took effect in Illinois Wednesday may want the event published in the newspaper.
The Champaign News-Gazette is now ready to publish their announcement --- at the same rate it charges for engagement and wedding announcements. Previously, the News-Gazette would not publish announcements from same-sex couples, but Managing Editor Dan Corkery said the newspaper decided to to change that policy, now that civil unions are part of state law.
"There are definitely people --- some of our readers, loyal readers --- who this is going to rub the wrong way," Corkery said. "And on the other hand, had we not published civil union announcements, there would have been people who would have upset about that as well, whether they were personally affected or not, just out of a sense of fairness."
Corkery notes that civil unions in Illinois are open to both same-sex and opposite sex couples, and the News-Gazette will run announcements for both. But he said Illinois civil unions are the only announcements they will publish for same-sex couples, unless the event rises to the level of a news story.
Announcements of extralegal commitment ceremonies, and same-sex civil unions and marriages performed outside Illinois will not be accepted.
Meanwhile, another Champaign-Urbana media outlet, the online publication "Smile Politely," said it will now run same-sex couple announcements free of charge --- for civil unions, but also for weddings, anniversaries and births or adoptions.