Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Judge Didn’t Believe Blagojevich Testimony

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)



(Graphic by Elliott Ramos/IPR)

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich acknowledged the former Illinois governor committed crimes, while pleading for leniency at a sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Their presentation included a taped phone call featuring Blagojevich's family, and letters written by his wife and daughter.

"His family deserves mercy," attorney Aaron Goldstein told federal Judge James Zagel. "They are not the ones that have to be responsible for these crimes."

But Zagel's rulings and comments during the all-day hearing indicate he's unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. A decision could come as early as Wednesday, after the prosecution and Blagojevich himself get a chance to address the judge.

In an early blow to the defense, Zagel sided with prosecutors in his calculation of federal sentencing guidelines at 30 years-to-life. But, like prosecutors, Zagel said he believes such a prison term to be too harsh.

A sentence that long, he said, is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case."

Zagel also said he believes the former governor lied on the stand during his corruption trial this summer. Blagojevich was convicted on a total of 17 federal counts in that trial, and one more during a trial the previous summer.

About ten jurors total from both trials were in court for Tuesday's hearing. The crowd also included Blagojevich's wife, Patti, accompanied by her siblings, Rich Mell and state Rep. Deb Mell.

A Sentencing Guideline Loss for Blagojevich

The hearing began shortly after 10 a.m. with a prosecutor and a lawyer for Blagojevich debating how to calculate federal sentencing guidelines, which Zagel can use in determining how much time the former governor will spend in prison.

Prosecutors had argued the guidelines are in the 30-to-life range, but they are asking for a 15-to-20 year sentence. Blagojevich's lawyers calculated the guidelines at roughly 3-to-4 years, though on Tuesday they asked for the "lowest sentence that the law allows."

Speaking first, defense attorney Carolyn Gurland said Blagojevich was not a "leader-organizer" of a conspiracy, and so should not receive a bump in prison time prosecutors have argued for.

Blagojevich, Gurland said, "sought advice" from his cadre of advisors, rather than "directed" them to assist. She also noted that the advisors routinely lied to Blagojevich and ignored his requests.

In addition, she said Blagojevich's "utter stagnation" on a potential deal with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan regarding a U.S. Senate appointment for Madigan's daughter, state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, proves the governor wasn't the leader that prosecutors are making him out to be.

In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Reid Schar told Zagel that Blagojevich did make a decision on the Senate seat. Blagojevich wanted to appoint President Obama's confidante Valerie Jarrett, Schar contended, if he could receive a high-powered or lucrative job in return.

"He did decide," Schar said. "He just didn't get what he wanted."

Zagel sided with prosecutors, saying the argument that Blagojevich was being guided by others "is not consistent with what we heard on the [wiretap] recordings or in the testimony of the witnesses or - for that matter - what we heard from the defendant on the witness stand."

"There is no question that his tone of voice [on the recordings] was demanding," Zagel said. "He was not a supplicant."

The judge also agreed with prosecutors in determining the value of the bribes Blagojevich was seeking. Zagel opted to include in the calculation a potential $1.5-million campaign contribution from supporters of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr., if Blagojevich appointed the congressman to the Senate.

This is the dollar amount in campaign contributions that Blagojevich stated on tape, his "recorded voice," as Zagel put it. "It was a price he put on it. A price he expected to receive."

Blagojevich's pursuit of benefits "wasn't successful," Zagel said. "But it was pretty relentless."

The judge ultimately agreed with prosecutors that a correct calculation of the sentencing guidelines puts Blagojevich in the range of 30 years-to-life. Nonetheless, Zagel said a sentence that long is "simply not appropriate in the context of this case."

"Came from Nothing"

After a break, the defense presented arguments, known as "mitigating factors," for a lenient sentence. Gurland said the 15-to-20 years the government was seeking is a "greater than necessary punishment," especially as Blagojevich pocketed "not a penny on the counts of conviction."

"Rod Blagojevich received nothing," Gurland said. "He asked for campaign contributions and appointments, not cash in envelopes."

Further, Gurland said, "It is not implausible that Mr. Blagojevich believed his actions complied with the law."

Moving from legal arguments to the defendant's biography, Gurland called her client a "kind and compassionate man." She described his upbringing by hard working parents.

At one point, Judge Zagel interrupted Gurland. He asked her about a statement Blagojevich apparently made in an interview with a federal probation officer, in which he said he "came from nothing."

"I don't understand it, this [kind of immigrant family story] is the backbone of America," Zagel said, noting the governor's parents raised two successful sons. "Why is this 'nothing'?"

Gurland replied that Blagojevich was likely referring to his parents' financial struggles, and meant no disrespect.

Earlier, the defense called to the stand a pediatrician, Dr. Deanna Monroe. Monroe testified that a state health insurance program started by Blagojevich, All-Kids, allowed children to get care whose families otherwise wouldn't be able to afford it.

Monroe also talked about the public health benefit of preventative care, including immunizations. And she said with high unemployment in recent years, "All-Kids has been a way for [people] to still cover their children."

The defense also played for the court recorded comments from an elderly woman who benefitted from a free transit benefit Blagojevich championed for senior citizens.

An 'Extraordinary' Father, and Potential Family 'Devastation'

Gurland went into detail of the "devastation that [Blagojevich's] absence would cause to his family."

The ex-governor always put his family first, she said. Gurland quoted a letter in which the principal at Blagojevich's daughters' school called her client a "loving and caring father." In another letter, Patti Blagojevich wrote that, "ironically," the kids are closer to their father today than they were before his arrest.

Zagel noted that similar family hardship arguments are often made during sentencing hearings before him, and asked Gurland how Blagojevich's situation was special. The lawyer replied that while she was preparing for this hearing, she witnessed how close the family was. "It is extraordinary."

To make this point further, Goldstein read a letter from the Blagojevich's oldest daughter, Amy, and played a phone call - caught on a government wiretap - of the entire Blagojevich family. It includes Patti reminding her husband to do the dishes.

This is "a very simple call that does show in real life terms the bond that is between Mr. Blagojevich and his family," Goldstein told the judge.

Speaking Out

Gurland sought to explain to the court Blagojevich's many and defiant public interviews following his arrest. She claimed that "even if Blagojevich had done and said nothing, the publicity wouldn't have gone away."

The ex-governor spoke up in his own defense, Gurland explained, so his family could "hold their heads up." And she said the most outrageous of public appearances, such as Patti's appearance on a reality show, were a financial necessity.

They were "paid handsomely to be made fun of and ridiculed," Gurland said, adding that the couple did not enjoy it.

What's Appropriate?

In their presentations, Goldstein and another Blagojevich lawyer, Sheldon Sorosky, acknowledge the ex-governor committed crimes.

When Blagojevich sought a job in exchange for appointing Jarrett to the Senate, "we accept the fact that's a crime," Sorosky said, adding that the crime does not call for a 15-year sentence.

Attorneys for Rod Blagojevich acknowledged the former Illinois governor committed crimes, while pleading for leniency at a sentencing hearing on Tuesday. Their presentation included a taped phone call featuring Blagojevich's family, and letters written by his wife and daughter.

"His family deserves mercy," attorney Aaron Goldstein told federal Judge James Zagel. "They are not the ones that have to be responsible for these crimes."

But Zagel's rulings and comments during the all-day hearing indicate he's unlikely to spare Blagojevich from a lengthy prison sentence. A decision could come as early as Wednesday, after the prosecution and Blagojevich himself get a chance to address the judge.

Goldstein rattled off a long list of politicians and government employees convicted of crimes he described as "much worse" than Blagojevich's. That list included former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who received 6 1/2 years in prison. Ryan is still serving that sentence, at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.

Goldstein argued that a long sentence for Blagojevich would not deter public corruption, nor would a relatively short one encourage it.

"The amount of pain, humility and then punishment [received by Blagojevich] is plenty to deter...politicians [and] all law-abiding citizens," Goldstein said.

Zagel asked Goldstein if his client was asking for probation, as Goldstein had been quoted in news reports.

Goldstein said Blagojevich is asking only for the lowest sentence possible.

The judge said he's received letters from Blagojevich supporters asking for leniency, and others who requested the ex-governor get an extended period, perhaps ten years, of probation and community service.

Zagel said he dismissed such requests, noting such a sentence would "essentially impose a form of slavery on your client."

Just before 5 p.m. Tuesday, the defense wrapped up its presentation. Zagel said the hearing would resume at 10 a.m. Wednesday. The prosecution still must present its argument, and Blagojevich will also address the judge.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Blagojevich Lawyer: Ex-Governor’s Actions Were Crimes

Rod Blagojevich's attorneys are admitting for the first time that the former Illinois governor is guilty of corruption.

But attorney Sheldon Sorosky argued Tuesday at Blagojevich's sentencing hearing that the prison term requested by prosecutors is too harsh.

Blagojevich had publicly maintained his innocence through two trials since his arrest three years ago. Sorosky told Judge James Zagel that it was illegal for the former governor to ask for a job for himself in exchange for his naming of a replacement for President Obama in the U.S. Senate.

He made the same argument when he talked about the other crimes for which the former governor was convicted.

But he said none of Blagojevich's actions merit the 15-to-20 year sentence recommended by prosecutors.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

29 File Petitions for 22 Seats in Champaign County Board Primary

In the upcoming March primary, Champaign County voters will be selecting candidates to run for seats on a county board that is smaller.

The Champaign County Board is slated to slim down from 27-to-22 members next December. The current arrangement ... of nine county board districts with three members each ... will change to eleven districts of two members each. Urbana Democrat Brendan McGinty is a longtime backer of the idea. He said a smaller county board with fewer members per district will be more accountable to voters.

"I want engaged members," McGinty said. "My hope is, a smaller board will by nature be more engaged, because it has to be more accountable. Two members per districts, rather than three, there's frankly no hiding."

But McGinty will not be on the smaller county board. He's one of 10 incumbents who have decided not to seek re-election. Others include current county board chairman Pius Weibel, and longtime members Steve Moser and Tom Betz. Only 17 incumbents filed ballot petitions by Monday's deadline, to run for Champaign County Board slots in the March primary. They were joined by 12 newcomers, including Republican Jim McGuire, a recent candidate for Champaign City Council. McQuire said working together to fix problems is a higher priority for him than winning back the majority that Republicans lost on the county board a decade ago.

"I hope that either way it goes, that when we get together and we do have make decisions for county government, that we work together," McGuire said. "And I think we can. We've got some good people on both sides; that we work together to move things forward for the community."

McGuire said he thinks finances at the county nursing home and the future of the aging county jail in downtown Urbana will be two of the major issues facing him, if he's elected to the Champaign County Board.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

UI Offensive Coordinator Takes Arkansas Job

Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino has left the school to return to Arkansas.

Interim head coach Vic Koenning said Tuesday that Petrino will return to work for his brother, Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino. Paul Petrino was a Razorbacks coach before coming to Illinois two seasons ago.

Quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm will be offensive coordinator for the Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA on Dec. 31.

It is the first departure since Ron Zook was fired Nov. 27 but probably not the last. Koenning says assistant coaches could leave before the bowl game if they get jobs elsewhere. Illinois hasn't named a replacement for Zook.

Petrino's offense tied a team record for points per game in 2010 with 32.5. But during this season's six-game losing streak the Illini scored 11 a game.

Categories: Education, Sports

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

US Rep. Johnson Introduces Concealed Carry Measure

Since his own amendment failed, Congressman Tim Johnson (R-Urbana) is making another bid to introduce concealed carry in Illinois.

The Republican's measure (the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, or H.R. 3543) would allow anyone who obtains a permit for concealed carry in another state to legally carry the weapon in Illinois. Johnson's bill comes after his amendment to the national Right-to-Carry Reciprocity bill fell in a House committee last month.

Johnson said he expects a legal challenge to follow, regardless of whether action is taken on his bill or the original measure, which awaits Senate action.

"It's absurd that 49 out of 50 states have what's a very modest, simple approach to the issue, and Illinois doesn't," Johnson said. "So when we try to address the underlying issue of reciprocity, it is equally absurd to exclude Illinois from its coverage."

Johnson said it will likely require the GOP to control both the Senate and Presidency in 2013 in order for the original bill to become law. But he noted his bill would not require Illinois to pass legislation of its own, "although I think that's good public policy."

The Congressman said he expects a number of co-sponsors to the measure, noting lawmakers from Illinois like Republicans U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, Adam Kinzinger, and Randy Hultgren had backed his amendment.

Illinois is the only state without a concealed carry law.

Categories: Government, Politics
Tags: government

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Blagojevich Sentencing Hearing Underway

Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich appeared subdued as his sentencing hearing got under way in federal court in Chicago.

Blagojevich is sitting at a defense table in a dark pinstripe suit. Before the proceedings began, he stood, rubbed his hands nervously and occasionally bit his lip. His wife, Patti Blagojevich, sat behind her husband in the spectators' section. Her brother put his arm around her.

Neither of the Blagojevich's two daughters were in court Tuesday. Among the attendees are more than a dozen jurors from both trials.

Blagojevich is facing sentencing for his corruption convictions, including on charges that he tried to sell or trade an appointment to President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Blagojevich the Unknown Variable at Sentencing

Ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich didn't say much as he left his Chicago home en route to his sentencing hearing in federal court Tuesday.

Blagojevich was greeted by a crowd of media when he walked out of his house Tuesday. Reporters shouted questions about the sentencing hearing, but the normally talkative Blagojevich didn't respond.

He did, however, comment when someone asked him about Chicago Cubs legend Ron Santo. Blagojevich indicated he was pleased that Santo had finally made it into the Hall of fame.

Blagojevich was convicted earlier this year on 18 corruption counts, including trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat.

Much of Tuesday's hearing will be a repeat of what attorneys have already argued in written motions filed with the court but there is one unknown variable: the governor himself.

Blagojevich will get a chance to address the court and former federal prosecutor Dave Weisman said Blagojevich should read a prepared statement and keep it short.

"If you haven't thought through and kind of critically analyzed what you're gonna say you tend to start to say things that hurt you like, 'I'm really not guilty,' which acceptance of responsibility is one of the things the judge should factor in and if he starts to go down that road that's gonna hurt him," said Weisman.

Last week Blagojevich's defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky said the governor would not be reading from a prepared statement.

The impeached state executive-turned-reality TV star has good reason to feel anxious and afraid at the two-day hearing in Chicago. He faces the prospect of 10 or more years behind bars.

If Judge James Zagel settles on a sentence Wednesday of more than a decade, that would make it one of the stiffest penalties imposed for corruption in a state with a long history of crooked politics.

Prosecutors will ask Zagel to imprison the twice-elected governor for 15 to 20 years, arguing he has not only shirked all responsibility for his crimes but repeatedly thumbed his nose at the U.S. justice system.

Blagojevich has already paid a price in public ridicule and financial ruin, the defense argues in proposing a term of just a few years. They also seem bent on an approach judges often frown upon at the sentencing stage: Continuing to insist their client is innocent.

Both sides could finish their pitches to Zagel during Tuesday's hearing, which was moved to a large ceremonial courtroom to accommodate expected crowds. But Zagel says he'll wait until Wednesday to pronounce a sentence - possibly so he can sleep on it.

The 70-year-old judge, who played a judge in the 1989 movie "Music Box," must answer nuanced questions according to complex sentencing algebra, including whether any good Blagojevich accomplished as governor counterbalances the bad.

In describing the humiliation his family has faced, the defense cited Blagojevich's appearances on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice," where he struggled to use a cellphone, and his wife, Patti, eating a tarantula on the reality show, "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!"

After sentencing, Zagel will likely give Blagojevich weeks before he must report to prison. Once there, the man heard scoffing on FBI wiretaps about earning a low six-figure salary would have to take a prison job - possibly scrubbing toilets - at just 12 cents an hour.

Blagojevich's sentencing comes just days before his 55th birthday and three years to the week of his Dec. 9, 2008, arrest.

The jury deadlocked in his first trial, agreeing on just one of 24 counts - that Blagojevich lied to the FBI. Jurors at his recent retrial convicted him on 17 of 20 counts, including bribery.

(AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Choosing the Right Nursing Home

A CU-CitizenAccess report about nursing homes in Champaign County tells how homes accepting Medicare and Medicaid funding were rated by the federal government. Many of the homes did poorly in the ratings, and an official with one of those facilities said the federal rating system was flawed. An advocate for nursing home residents, Tami Wacker, said the rating system is a useful tool when trying to choose a nursing home, but it's not perfect. Wacker said there is a lot more to consider when looking for the right facility. Wacker is Operations Manager and a Regional Ombudsman with the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Aging. The Bloomington-based agency serves seniors and persons caring for them in a 16-county area. Wacker spoke with Illinois Public Media's Jim Meadows.

(Photo by Darrell Hoemann)

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Categories: Health

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - December 06, 2011

Urbana Council Approves Snow Removal Ordinance

An ordinance requiring the shoveling of snow from sidewalks is now on the books in Urbana.

The City Council Monday night passed the measure as a pilot project. The initial plan applies to downtown, Campustown, and part of the Philo Road Business District, specifically, Philo from Florida Avenue to Windsor Road.

Urbana will give property owners 24 hours' notice after two inches of snowfall, and a notice from public works when streets have been plowed. That's less time than Champaign, which provides 48 hours' notice, plus a warning for an additional day for those that don't comply.

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing says 24 hours was the recommendation of the city's neighborhood safety task force.

"It's a dangerous situation if we have people pushing baby carriages, and we have people walking in the street," she said. "We're trying to make things safe for pedestrians as well as drivers."

If property owners miss the 24 hour deadline, the city would hire a contractor and bill the property owner.

Alderman Charlie Smyth had suggested the ordinance reflect Champaign's, which provides 48 hours' notice. But he understands criticisms that it's too lax a measure.

"I'm just a little concerned that it is different, and making sure that people can coordinate with the private snow removal crews," said Smyth. "(They) work across both cities. So they're going to have to coordinate their schedules and figure that out. I think this complicates things a little bit."

When the council revisits the ordinance in May, Smyth admits there's a lot yet to figure out, including the cost of hauling snow in neighborhoods where there's nowhere left to store it. Mayor Prussing also hopes a volunteer shoveling effort starts in other neighborhoods.

Alderwoman Heather Stevenson cast the lone vote against the ordinance, saying city-owned sidewalks shouldn't be the responsibility of businesses and homeowners.

Categories: Government, Politics

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