Illinois Public Media News

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 27, 2011

Quinn Calls for More Transparency Following Blagojevich Conviction

Illinois Governor Pat Quinn says attention needs to remain on reforming state government after the conviction of former Governor Rod Blagojevich on corruption charges.

Blagojevich is the fourth Illinois governor turned convicted felon, following Democrats Otto Kerner and Dan Walker and Republican George Ryan.

Quinn served as lieutenant governor, but became governor in 2009 after the Illinois legislature removed Blagojevich from office.

Speaking to reporters Monday afternoon, Quinn said anyone who misleads the public should be held accountable. Quinn underlined the importance of passing stronger ethics legislation.

"That's imperative in Illinois," Quinn said. "Seems to me after two straight governors have been convicted of serious felonies, it's time to turn that page, and we have and make sure we trust the people."

Quinn said he has a full roster of ideas he still wants passed to make state and local government more transparent in Illinois, including public financing of campaigns, open primaries where voters don't have to go on record registering with a particular party, and stronger conflict of interest provisions for legislators.

Quinn also said he will push for a constitutional amendment that would allow ethics initiatives on state and local ballots.

But State Representative Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said there is no way to legislate moral conduct.

"There will be a lot of knee jerk reactions from politicians, 'we need to do this that that and this," Durkin said. "The fact is the public needs to do a better job of scrutinizing the people that they send to the governor's mansion and send to public office.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 27, 2011

East Central Illinois Observers Weigh In on the Blagojevich Conviction

Observers of the Illinois political world say even though past governors have been jailed for misdeeds, the conviction of Rod Blagojevich may hit closer to home for current political leaders.

Chris Mooney is a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He said the case is only the latest of a series of criminal cases that should have had power-brokers in the state thinking twice before acting.

"It's not widespread, but there's enough people in the political world that think it's okay to do this stuff, until they get the message that even if they can't understand that it's morally wrong, they'll get the message that bad things happen if I do this, so I'm going to stop doing it," Mooney told IPM's Tom Rogers after the verdicts were read.

Former state representative Bill Black of Danville served on the committee that impeached Blagojevich in 2009. He said the impeachment led lawmakers to pass several ethics reforms.

Black hopes the Blagojevich conviction will help inspire resolutions to other situations, such as a campaign finance loophole that lets legislative floor leaders raise unlimited amounts of cash.

"Maybe general assembly tuition waivers, that have been around a hundred years and the subject of a dozen scandalous news stories -- maybe it will finally disappear," Black said after the verdict. "Maybe we'll figure out a way to be a little more transparent in the bid process so we don't go through 90 days from now what we just went through with Health Alliance. What happened there?"

Lawmakers in the Champaign-Urbana area vocally protested a sudden change in health insurance providers that had thousands of state workers scrambling to find alternatives. Health Alliance ultimately won 90-day emergency contracts to continue service, but state officials still contend that switching providers will save the state money.

Black said he doesn't want to see Blagojevich face an overly-long sentence, but he said the sentence should fit the former governor's role in what he calls the state's financial wreckage.

And now that the former governor has been convicted, former state legislator Rick Winkel says it's up to political parties and voters to put honest people in office. The director of the Office of Public Leaderhip at the University of Illinois' Institute for Government and Public Affairs says ethics and campaign finance laws only go so far. He notes Blagovich was twice elected to the state's top office. And the second time, Winkel notes it was after the indictement of political fundraiser Tony Rezko.

"We knew that there were serious problems, and yet we re-elected him," said Winkel. "We have to as a state come to grips with this and demand more of our public officials, of our political parties, and ourselves to keep track and to be informed, and not to allow this to happen again."

Winkel says the only thing that surprised him about the verdict was Blagojevich's reaction, saying a rational person could have seen it coming.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 27, 2011

Quinn Signs Seat-Belt Measure Into Law

Illinois drivers and passengers need to buckle up because Gov. Pat Quinn on Monday signed a new Illinois law requiring everyone riding in a vehicle to wear their seat belts.

"We want to save lives and this legislation is important to doing that," Quinn said at a bill-signing ceremony in Chicago.

The new law requiring everyone to wear their seatbelts goes into effect Jan. 1. Currently, people riding in the front seat of a vehicle have to wear their seat belts, but people in the back seat are only required to be belted in if they are under 18.

Officials said it was the latest measure to improve safety on Illinois roads. Others actions by the state have included a ban on texting while driving and increased training for student drivers.

Secretary of State Jesse White said making rear passengers wear seat belts will protect not only them but those people in the front seat as well.

"If by chance they are not buckled up they could become a human missile for those in the front of the vehicle," White said.

Buses, taxicabs and emergency vehicles are exempt from the new law.

Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat from Chicago, was one of the sponsors of the measure along with the late GOP Rep. Mark Beaubien, the seven-term state lawmaker who died earlier this month.

Beaubien, of Barrington Hills, collapsed while at a House GOP event with family, friends and colleagues. Beaubien's family attended the bill signing.

His widow, Dee Beaubien, said the measure was "extremely important" to him and all the people who helped get it passed.

"He considered them legacy," she said.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 27, 2011

Jury Convicts Ex-Ill. Gov. Blagojevich at Retrial

(With additional reporting from Illinois Public Media and Illinois Public Radio)

Rod Blagojevich, who rode his talkative everyman image to two terms as Illinois governor before scandal made him a national punch line, was convicted Monday of a wide range of corruption charges, including the incendiary allegation that he tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's Senate seat.

The verdict was a bitter defeat for Blagojevich, who had spent 21/2 years professing his innocence on reality TV shows and later on the witness stand. His defense team had insisted that hours of FBI wiretap recordings were just the ramblings of a politician who liked to think out loud.

He faces up to 300 years in prison, although federal sentencing guidelines are sure to significantly reduce his time behind bars.

After hearing the verdict, Blagojevich turned to defense attorney Sheldon Sorosky and asked "What happened?" His wife, Patti, slumped against her brother, then rushed into her husband's arms.

Before the decision was read, the couple looked flushed, and the former governor blew his wife a kiss across the courtroom, then stood expressionless, with his hands clasped tightly.

The decision capped a long-running spectacle in which Blagojevich became famous for blurting on a recorded phone call that his ability to appoint Obama's successor to the Senate was "fucking golden" and that he wouldn't let it go "for fucking nothing."

Blagojevich, who has been free on bond since shortly after his arrest, becomes the second straight Illinois governor convicted of corruption. His predecessor, George Ryan, is now serving 61/2 years in federal prison.

The case exploded into scandal when Blagojevich was awakened by federal agents on Dec. 9, 2008, at his Chicago home and was led away in handcuffs. Federal prosecutors had been investigating his administration for years, and some of his closest cronies had already been convicted.

"The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave," U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said before a bank of television cameras after the arrest.

Blagojevich, who was also accused of shaking down businessmen for campaign contributions, was swiftly impeached and removed from office.

After his arrest, Blagojevich called federal prosecutors "cowards and liars" and challenged Fitzgerald to face him in court if he was "man enough."

Mentioned at times as a possible future FBI director, Fitzgerald pledged to retry the governor after the first jury failed to return verdicts on 23 of the 24 counts. However, they did convict Blagojevich of lying to the FBI. That charge carries a penalty of up to five years in prisons.

During the second trial, prosecutors streamlined their case, and attorneys for the former governor put on a defense - highlighted by a chatty Blagojevich taking the witness stand for seven days to portray himself as a big talker but not a criminal.

Blagojevich got the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of jurors when he testified. He spent seven days on the stand talking about his childhood and his rise to power. He was charming and funny. He also provided some reasonable counter explanations for some of the conversations he had on the recorded phone calls. But he had trouble explaining some of the tapes, including a secretly recorded call on November 7, 2008 in which Blagojevich is talking about appointing Obama's preferred candidate, Valerie Jarrett, to the Senate for a position in Obama's cabinet. He tells an adviser he wants to be the secretary of Health and Human Services.

"And if I'd get that, and, and, and if, if that was somethin' available to me and maybe it's really unrealistic, but if that was available to me I could do Valerie Jarrett in a heartbeat," Blagojevich is heard on one of the tapes.

Blagojevich simply insisted to jurors that he was not trying to trade one for the other. He said they were not connected. However, Blagojevich talked to Tom Balanoff about the Senate appointment. Balanoff was a union official who was carrying messages between the Obama and Blagojevich camps. Blagojevich admitted that he discussed both appointing Jarrett to the Senate and his own desire for a cabinet post in the same conversation.

He clearly sought to solicit sympathy. He spoke about his working-class parents and choked up recounting the day he met his wife, the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman. He reflected on his feelings of inferiority at college where other students wore preppy "alligator" shirts. Touching on his political life, he portrayed himself as a friend of working people, the poor and elderly.

He told jurors his talk on the wiretaps merely displayed his approach to decision-making: to invite a whirlwind of ideas - "good ones, bad ones, stupid ones" - then toss the ill-conceived ones out. To demonstrate the absurdities such brainstorming could generate, he said he once considered appointing himself to the Senate seat so he could travel to Afghanistan and help hunt down Osama bin Laden.

The government offered a starkly different assessment to jurors: Blagojevich was a liar, and had continued to lie, over and over, to their faces.

Prosecutors during the second trial presented a simplified version of their case. They dropped Blagojevich's brother as a defendant and cut down on the number of charges against the ousted governor. They summoned about half as many witnesses, asked fewer questions and barely touched on topics not directly related to the charges, such as Blagojevich's lavish shopping or his erratic working habits. Many of the tapes played focused on the marquee allegation that Blagojevich tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama when he won the presidency in 2008.

When a prosecutor read wiretap transcripts where Blagojevich seems to speak clearly of trading the Senate seat for a job, Blagojevich told jurors, "I see what I say here, but that's not what I meant."

Lead prosecutor Reid Schar started his questioning of Blagojevich with a quick verbal punch: "Mr. Blagojevich, you are a convicted liar, correct?"

"Yes," Blagojevich eventually answered after the judge overruled a flurry of defense objections.

The proof, prosecutors said, was there on the FBI tapes played for jurors. That included his infamous rant: "I've got this thing and it's fucking golden, and I'm just not giving it up for fucking nothing. I'm not gonna do it."

Prosecutors painted a picture of Blagojevich as a desperate and selfish man who was jealous of Obama's political rise. Jurors heard one tape in which Blagojevich complains to his advisers about his lot in life: "I gotta tell ya, I don't wanna be governor for the next two years. I wanna get going. I'll, I, this has been two shitty fucking years where I'm doing the best I can trying to get through a brick wall and find ways around stuff, but it's like just screwing my family and time is passing me by and I'm stuck, it's no good. It's no good. I gotta get moving. The whole world's passing me by and I'm stuck in this fucking job as governor now. Everybody's passing me by and I'm stuck."

In that same call, Blagojevich curses Obama because the president-elect does not seem to be offering Blagojevich much in exchange for getting Jarrett appointed to the Senate.

"I mean you guys are telling me I just gotta suck it up for two years and do nothing," Blagojevich said. "Give this mother fucker, his senator. Fuck him. For nothing? Fuck him!"

Indignant one minute, laughing the next, seemingly in tears once, Blagojevich endeavored to counteract the blunt, greedy man he appeared to be on FBI wiretaps. He apologized to jurors for the four-letter words that peppered the recordings.

"When I hear myself swearing like that, I am an Fucking jerk," he told jurors.

Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who watched much of the trial, said the defense had no choice but to put Blagojevich on the stand, even though doing so was risky.

"The problem was with some of his explanations," Kling said. "It reminded me of a little kid who gets his hand caught in a cookie jar. He says, 'Mommy I wasn't taking the cookies. I was just trying to protect them and to count them.'"

In addition to Blagojevich's testimony during this trial, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. and former Congressman Bill Lipinski also testified.

Emanuel's four minutes on the stand had little impact, but Jackson, who was called by the defense, actually gave testimony that helped the prosecution. He said that Blagojevich had asked him for a $25,000 campaign contribution. Later, Jackson's wife applied for a job with the state but didn't get it. At a subsequent meeting in Washington D.C., Jackson said Blagojevich referred to the job and then said, "You should have given me that $25,000."

In the end, the 12 jurors in this case voted to convict the 54-year-old Blagojevich on 17 of 20 counts after deliberating nine days. Blagojevich was acquitted of soliciting bribes in the alleged shakedown of a road-building executive. The jury deadlocked on two charges of attempted extortion related to that executive and funding for a school. The forewoman, a retired church musician and liturgist, said the jury carefully went through each of the 20 counts before reaching a final verdict.

"Throughout the process we were very respectful of each other's views and opinions and as a result we feel confident we have reached a fair and just verdict," she said.

With his wife, Patti, by his side, Blagojevich spent about 30 seconds talking to reporters after the verdict was announced.

"Well, among the many lessons I've learned from this whole experience is to try to speak a little bit less, so I'm going to keep my remarks kind of short," he said. "I frankly am stunned. There's not much left to say other than we want to get home to our little girls, and talk to them and explain things to them and then try to sort things out."

Judge James Zagel has barred Blagojevich from traveling outside the area without permission. A status hearing for sentencing was set for Aug. 1.

Federal guidelines and previous sentences meted out to other corrupt Illinois politicians suggest Blagojevich could get around 10 years in prison rather than the up to 300 years in prison that he is facing. But judges have enormous discretion and can factor in a host of variables, including whether a defendant took the stand and lied. Prosecutors have said that Blagojevich did just that.

Blagojevich is not the first governor to be convicted of a crime. He now joins the list of other Illinois governors-turned-convicted felons, including Democrats Otto Kerner and Dan Walker and Republican George Ryan.

Current Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn said anyone who misleads the public should be held accountable. Quinn underlined the importance of passing stronger ethics legislation.

"That's imperative in Illinois," he said. "Seems to me after two straight governors have been convicted of serious felonies, it's time to turn that page. We have and make sure we trust the people."

Counts Against Blagojevich:

GUILTY _ Counts 1-10: WIRE FRAUD. Nearly all are related to the allegation Blagojevich tried to sell or trade President Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Each count carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

NO VERDICT _ Count 11: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. The alleged attempt to force then-U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel's Hollywood agent brother to hold a fundraiser for Blagojevich in exchange for releasing a school grant. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

GUILTY _ Count 12: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. Alleged attempt to shake down the CEO of Children's Memorial Hospital for a campaign contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

GUILTY _ Count 13: SOLICITING A BRIBE. Shakedown of Children's Memorial Hospital executive. Maximum penalty of 10 years.

GUILTY _ Count 14: EXTORTION CONSPIRACY. Blagojevich allegedly conspiring with an aide to shake down a racetrack executive for a campaign contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

GUILTY _ Count 15: BRIBERY CONSPIRACY. Related to the alleged shakedown of the racetrack executive. Maximum five-year sentence.

NO VERDICT _ Count 16: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. An attempt to shake a road-building executive down for a contribution. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

NOT GUILTY _ Count 17: SOLICITING A BRIBE. Related to alleged road-builder shakedown. Maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

GUILTY _ Count 18: EXTORTION CONSPIRACY. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

GUILTY _ Count 19: ATTEMPTED EXTORTION. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum penalty of 20 years.

GUILTY _ Count 20: BRIBERY CONSPIRACY. Related to the Senate seat. Maximum of 5 years.

(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 27, 2011

LIFE ON ROUTE 150: The Stigma of Food Stamps

The 2008 recession has taken its toll up and down U.S. Route 150 - and the U.S. Department of Agriculture says almost every Illinois county along the 150 corridor has seen an uptick in 2010 in use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps. But anti-hunger advocates say many people who have lost their jobs are NOT taking advantage of SNAP. Illinois Public Media's Dave Dickey reports as a part of the series "Life on Route 150.

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WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 24, 2011

Illinois’ Congressional Delegation Votes with Majority on Libya Measures

A good portion of Illinois' Congressional delegation believes President Obama should have sought the authority to use military forces in Libya, but many of the same lawmakers won't support a cutoff of funding for it.

The nays took the first vote among Illinois' US House members 17 to 3, voting with the majority. Adam Kinzinger was the state's only Republican to back a largely symbolic measure that backs the President's use of military force. Urbana Republican Tim Johnson opposed it. The overall vote was 295-123.

But Johnson also voted down a separate bill that would have cut off funds for military's effort. 5 Illinois U.S. House members supported that measure, including Republican John Shimkus, Democrats Jesse Jackson Junior and Dan Lipinski. That bill failed 238-180.

The Senate has yet to vote.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 24, 2011

Home Sales in Champaign County Show a Slight Slowdown

The inventory of available houses and condos on the market in Champaign County is ample and growing. So says the head of the county's Association of Realtors - potentially good news for buyers, but he says sales are relatively slow.

May figures from the state realtors' organization shows 204 sales during the month, down 20% from May of 2010, with year-to-date sales down more than 15%.

Champaign County Association of Realtors president Max Mitchell says tax credits for first-time home buyers have come to an end, and since then buyers have been hesitant. "In 2011, with the interest rates being so favorable, it has gotten people out, but people are a little bit nervous simply because they've heard on the news that you have to have a higher credit score to qualify for a loan," Mitchell said.

Mitchell says the potential for higher required down-payments also has buyers and real estate observers worried. On the other hand, state figures suggest that home prices in Champaign County are holding their own compared to the rest of the state - the median sale price in May held nearly steady with the median price a year ago.

But Mitchell cautions that foreclosures are becoming more of a problem for the market. He says up to now, foreclosed homes have been a target for investors. "Now there are more foreclosed properties, and unfortunately, investors see that if you're going to own a foreclosed property, you aren't going to be able to resell it for a much higher amount in today's market.

Categories: Business, Economics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 24, 2011

Gov. Quinn Signs Congressional Map; GOP Hopes Court Reverses It

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn says the congressional district map he's signed into law is fair and protects minority voters' rights.

Quinn signed the proposal to change district lines--required every 10 years after the Census--on Friday. He says taxpayers had input at public hearings on both state legislative and congressional maps, even though the final product for the U.S. House was voted on less than 24 hours after it was publicized.

Critics point to only one district among 18 where Latinos represent the majority even though the Hispanic population in Illinois grew 32.5 percent. Illinois is losing one seat in the House in 2013 because of nationwide population shifts.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady says the new congressional district lines are an attempt to "silence'' voters. Brady says voters sent a GOP majority to Congress just last fall. He says the map is unfair to Republicans. It lumps five GOP incumbents into districts where they'd have to run against other incumbents in 2012. Brady says Quinn "lost all claims to the label 'reformer' " by approving the map and says he hopes courts will overturn it.

He says the map was released on a Friday and approved on a holiday weekend to avoid public scrutiny.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - June 24, 2011

LIFE ON ROUTE 150:  Rural Churches Look for Ways to Survive

In rural towns throughout Central Illinois, deciding where to attend worship service today could mean giving up youth activities or choir for a smaller service, or sacrificing a local connection to seek out parishioners of a similar age in a large congregation. As part of the series, 'Life on Route 150', Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert looks at rural churches, and what some in the region are doing to survive in today's climate.

(Photo by Jeff Bossert/WILL)

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AP - Illinois Public Media News - June 24, 2011

Quinn Hints at State Budget Direction

A state budget plan on the Governor's desk will undergo some changes.

Governor Pat Quinn says he will put his own stamp on a spending package after lawmakers, primarily in the House, put together a bipartisan document that cut spending levels in areas like education and health care.

Quinn says those are priorities for him and hinted he will shift spending to reflect that. "It's obviously a tough budget time," Quinn said. "But that's why we have a Governor. The legislature doesn't dictate everything. We will look at their outline and make changes we think are better."

Quinn has no authority to add money to the budget, but he could rework spending lines so that money is freed up for what he wants.

Lawmakers could agree with his changes or try to override him. However, they are not set to return to the capitol until the fall. Quinn expects to act on his changes next week, before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

Categories: Economics, Government, Politics

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