Illinois Public Media News

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2012

Judge Nixes Part of Illinois Campaign Finance Law

A federal judge in Chicago has declared part of Illinois' campaign finance law unconstitutional.

According to the ruling, the state cannot enforce contribution limits on independent political action committees, which are prohibited from coordinating with candidates or political parties. Nationally they have become a big issue in the Republican presidential contest, with the so-called Super PACs spending millions of dollars.

The Illinois lawsuit was brought by Personal PAC, an abortion-rights group.

"We weren't taking a position on the rightness or wrongness of contribution limits," said Terry Cosgrove, who is Personal PAC's president. "We were just saying we wanted to be treated like everyone else."

Cosgrove said out-of state groups like Wisconsin Right-to-Life can already raise and spend unlimited amounts of money. He said until Tuesday's decision, that gave those other groups an unfair advantage.

"The playing field is now level, and we are very happy that we will be allowed to raise the necessary funds to advocate for reproductive rights in Illinois," Cosgrove said.

Critics say the ruling could open the way for Super PACs in Illinois. At the national level, Super PACs have become notorious for allowing millions of dollars to flow into the presidential contest.

"The district court ruling today opens the door to a whole host of committees," said David Morrison of the watchdog group, Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "Not just the plaintiff in this case, but a whole bunch of groups could jump in with a lot of money. It could change the dynamic of a number of races around the state."

Opponents had asked the court to consider Illinois' history of corruption. But Judge Marvin Aspen based his ruling on a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says political contributions are a matter of free speech.

Categories: Government, Politics

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2012

Mahomet-Seymour School Bd OKs $700K Budget Cut

A Mahomet-Seymour school board member said the $700,000 in budget cuts approved Monday night were difficult to make, but unavoidable.

School Board Vice President Vicki Niswander said the reductions for the 2012-2013 school year were made necessary by cuts in state funding --- and the school district will feel the impact.

"You know, as a school district, most of our money goes into personnel," Niswander said. "That means that personnel are going to have to be eliminated. And that's probably going to mean administrators; it's going to be mean teachers. It's going to mean other support that. I have no idea at this point, how we're going to that, but we have to."

The cuts include the elimination of several teaching positions ---- some through attrition. Also, the district is eliminating most of its library assistants. Superintendent Keith Oates said the loss of the library assistants will have a real impact. He said they have done more for their school libraries than just check books in and out.

"There's a lot of reading assistance, book selection, book bags that go home, especially at the elementary level," Oates said. "So, there's a lot that goes on in our libraries, they're very high quality. And a very, very difficult decision to reduce those library assistants out. That will affect the service of our libraries, without a doubt."

The Mahomet-Seymour district will also close down enrichment programs at its two elementary schools, and end its junior high football program ---- although the district notes that they had already lost many participants to a community football program.

Oates saud the state funding cuts forcing them to make budget reductions are hurting schools throughout Illinois. He predicts the Mahomet-Seymour will have to cut up to $800,000 in the following school year as well. But Oates said the district will continue to strive for excellence, even as it resigns itself to making do with less money.

Categories: Education
Tags: education

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2012

Illinois Lawmaker Arrested for Allegedly Taking Bribe

Federal authorities arrested an Illinois state representative from Chicago on one count federal bribery charge Tuesday. Democrat Derrick Smith represents the 10th House District, which includes sections of the city's West and North sides.

The U.S. Attorney's office said it has Smith on tape accepting a $7,000 cash bribe this past weekend. Prosecutors alleged Smith took the bribe in exchange for supporting a $50,000 state grant request from a daycare center.

According to the criminal complaint, it was all set up by a paid FBI informant who did campaign work for Smith. The informant's conversations with the representative were recorded, the complaint said.

A call and e-mail to Smith's office were not returned. He appeared in court Tuesday afternoon, but made no comment about the charges.

Smith has only been a member of the House since last spring, when, with the backing of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, he was appointed to fill a vacancy.

"I am very disappointed with the conduct alleged in the charges," White said in a statement. "I am confident this case will be handled fairly and justly by the judicial system."

Smith's arrest came a week before Democratic voters pick between him and challenger Tom Swiss. Swiss said he thinks the news could actually cause problems for his campaign, by awakening Democratic leaders backing Smith who may have been taking the race for granted.

"This is going to alert everybody to this race and there's still six days left," Swiss said. "There's a lot bigger people out there with deeper pockets and larger armies that can come in and really do an awful lot of work."

Swiss is a former local Republican official who Democrats claim has run a racially-insensitive campaign in this West and North Side district.

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 13, 2012

Cherry Orchard Property Manager Appears in Court

(With additional reporting by Pam G. Dempsey of CU-CitizenAccess)

A court date has been set for next week for a landlord who was arrested last month on contempt of court warrants issued after he and his son failed to appear at hearings in connection with substandard housing they managed south of Rantoul.

Eduardo Ramos faces a court date of March 23rd. He was arrested Feb. 25 on two contempt-of-court warrants at the Dulles International Airport in Virginia.

Ramos was arrested just after he had arrived from an international flight and held by custom officials, who in turn contacted the airport authority police who took him to Loudoun County, Virginia until he could be extradited to Illinois, according to airport and Loudoun County, Virginia officials.

On Friday, Eduardo Ramos made his first appearance in Champaign County court since his arrest.

A judge issued two arrest warrants - a civil contempt of court and a criminal contempt of court - for both Eduardo Ramos and his son Bernardo Ramos early last year after they failed to appear at a hearing on property they own south of Rantoul. Neither one had been apprehended until now. Bernardo Ramos is still being sought.

The Ramoses were ordered last April to close down Cherry Orchard Village apartment complex and fined more than $54,000 for failing to legally connect and repair sewage systems for six of the eight buildings on the property in a civil case file by the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District. Cherry Orchard Village apartments has been used as a migrant worker camp.

Eduardo Ramos and Bernardo Ramos have repeatedly declined comment on stories about their cases and their properties.

The arrest warrants were issued last May after the two repeatedly failed to attend court hearings on the matter, which began in 2007.

The arrest warrants were amended since they were first issued last May. Initially, the Ramoses had to post the full cash amount of each warrant, or a total of $20,000 each.

Then, when they failed to appear for another hearing, the judge said they were to be jailed until the sewage problem was repaired or the property was vacant.

Eduardo Ramos was released on his own recognizance and did not have to pay any bond, according to the Champaign County Sheriff's Office.

On Friday, a Champaign County judge dismissed the criminal complaint petition against Eduardo Ramos, according to Joel Fletcher, assistant state's attorney.

Fletcher said that the fines are under appeal and cannot be collected until the appellate court reviews.

Eduardo Ramos' attorney, Philip Summers was out of town last week and he was represented by Don Parkinson in court on Friday. Neither attorney returned a phone call seeking comment Tuesday morning.

Public Health Administrator Julie Pryde said the property remains vacant and cannot be used until the sewer system is legally repaired.

"Our main concern is that Cherry Orchard remain closed if they had not fixed the septic system, which they have not," Pryde said. "You know, barring that not getting fixed, we're not interested in seeing that re-opened because the situation in anyway has not been addressed."

Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said he thinks the apartments should be torn down.

"It would be wonderful if someone would step in, buy the property, and fix it up over the court of a year," Hall said. "But the existing economic conditions, that's just not realistic. It's not going to happen. I don't believe it would ever happen to the extent that it should be."

Hall said he hasn't approached the Champaign County Board about demolishing the property.

Categories: Criminal Justice
Tags: courts, crime

WILL - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul Event Moved to UI’s Huff Hall

Wednesday night's appearance at the University of Illinois by Texas Congressman and Republican Presidential Candidate Ron Paul has been moved.

A spokesman for Congressman Tim Johnson, Phil Bloomer, says the site was switched from Foellinger Auditorium to Huff Hall in order to accommodate a larger crowd.

Bloomer says all 1,500 seats at Foellinger were claimed within hours Sunday night. Huff Hall holds more than 4,000 people, so tickets for the free event won't be required.

Johnson, who plans to introduce the Congressman, calls him one of the most principled men he's met, who's 'unwavering, and an ideological champion for all of us.'

The event starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Doors at Huff Hall open at 6.

Categories: Education, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

Quinn Plan Would Cut Drug Treatment in Prisons

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's prison plan goes beyond closing eight facilities. Drug-abuse treatment and job training would be cut by more than $12 million.

Critics say the cuts would make a crowded system more crowded. John Maki of the prison watchdog John Howard Association tells The (Bloomington) Pantagraph ( ) that eliminating those services would mean more ex-convicts back in prison because they're not prepared for the streets.

Quinn's proposal for the budget year that begins in July would close two maximum-security prisons and six halfway houses along with drug and jobs programs the Corrections Department has yet to specify.

Sheridan and Southwestern Illinois correctional centers specialize in drug treatment. Their services would be affected but spokeswoman Stacey Solano says the agency is looking for other prisons to specialize too.

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

Indiana Drops Attempt to Block Paper’s Story on DCS

The Indiana Department of Child Services has dropped its attempt to block the South Bend Tribune from publishing a story based on audio recordings of telephone calls to the agency's child abuse hotline.

Attorney General Greg Zoeller says he recommended the DCS drop its attempt to block the story. He says prior restraint of the news media publishing public records is inconsistent with the First Amendment.

The state Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear arguments on the case Monday afternoon.

The Tribune had originally won release of records following the November death of 10-year-old Tramelle Sturgis.

A state appeals court granted an emergency block on the records Friday, an hour after the paper published a story on its website with details from the calls.

Categories: Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

Durbin, FEMA to Discuss Tornado Aid for Homeowners

(With additional reporting from The Associated Press)

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and other lawmakers plan to meet this week with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find out why it won't help southern Illinois residents hurt by the recent tornado.

They'll meet Wednesday with FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate in Washington, D.C.

Durbin spokeswoman Christina Angarola says the senator wants to know how the decision was made and will ask Fugate to reconsider "some elements." She didn't say what those were.

FEMA spokesman Mark Peterson says the agency doesn't put a dollar value on homeowners' losses, but he says enough insurance and other resources exist within the state to recover from the disaster.

Peterson says the agency is determining now whether local governments qualify for help - which requires at least $12 million in expenses and damages.

Categories: Government, Politics
Tags: government

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

Gill, Goetten Battling for IL-13th Dem Nomination

Two Democrats hope to take advantage of the new congressional map as they try to unseat entrenched Republican Tim Johnson. Pundits say whoever wins the primary next week has a solid chance of winning in November.

The new 13th congressional district is among those crafted by Illinois Democrats so the six-term GOP incumbent Tim Johnson would be vulnerable.

The re-drawn Congressional district contains Champaign-Urbana, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur and Springfield, and trades away Republican strongholds in the northern part of the old 15th district in exchange for Democratically-leaning Madison county and Metro East.

One of the Democratic candidates in the race is Greene County State's Attorney Matt Goetten.

"I've been a prosecutor the last eight years, the last seven as the Greene County States Attorney," Goetten said, touting his experience. "I'm a veteran of Afghanistan. I've been in the Illinois Army National Guard the last 13 years and more recently I transferred to the Air National Guard. I've been a small business owner. I have been an educator. I was a high school teacher for a short time."

Goetten's opponent is David Gill, the Bloomington emergency room physician who is taking his fourth shot at unseating Johnson. Gill said he has a solid shot this time because the district looks so different.

"If the map hadn't changed, if it was still Illinois 15, I don't know that I was going to keep beating my head against the wall," Goetten said. "God bless Ford County and Douglas County and Iroqouis County, but there are places there where God with a "D" after his name couldn't beat Satan with an "R" after his name."

Those areas are not a factor anymore, but included in the new 13th are predominantly rural areas in other traditionally-leaning Republican areas of Greene, Jersey and Macoupin counties. Gill said he is confident he can perform well there.

"I've lived in rural areas in the past and a lot of that is farming country, rural country. There's a way of life there that I think is very similar to what they have in Carrollton, Jerseyville and Carlinville," Gill said. "I feel very comfortable in those environments as I've been traveling these last seven months."

Despite that presence, Gill's name is recognized primarily in parts of the old 15th district--Champaign, Bloomington and Clinton.

Goetten is the son of Greene County's former State's Attorney. Norbert Goetten, and his brother, Benjamin Goetten, holds the same office in neighboring Jersey County.

The Goetten family is well connected in the Democratic Party and that connection helped lead to an unprecedented endorsement from Illinois' U.S. Senator, Dick Durbin.

"The part of the district where he's from traditionally would lean Republican, but he's gonna do well there," Durbin said. "I thought that may give him a slight advantage when it comes to the overall congressional district."

Gill campaign spokesman, Mike Richards said he was disappointed to see Durbin endorsing Goetten.

"But we're confident that David is going to win this primary because he's the only candidate who's been standing up for women's rights," Richards said. "He's been endorsed by the national NOW and he's the only candidate who is 100 percent pro-choice."

It is clear that Gill is highlighting Goetten's Catholic faith as a wedge between two candidates who, as even Goetten acknowledges, take very similar stances on many major issues.

Name recognition and political experience might be the key factor in this race, according to Illinois State University political scientist Erik Rankin, himself a Democrat and a member of the McLean County Board.

Rankin noted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing Goetten, and he says it is likely because Gill has already taken his three strikes at getting to Washington.

"The D triple C (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and the national party has just gotten to the point where they're looking at this race and going we're gonna put our eggs in the basket of the unknown rather than what we already know and assume to be the eventual loser," Rankin said.

Nevertheless, Gill said he's buoyed by strong grass roots support.

Gill said Macon County Republicans took the unusual step of voting on endorsement right after a joint appearance by both candidates, and he said the result was 50 Gill votes and none for Goetten.

On defense issues, both say the military budget should be open for cuts, though Goetten said he agrees with Defense Secretary Panetta that current proposed cuts aren't sustainable.

"We can shrink the military," Goetten said. "But I don't know that we can do that without sacrificing our ability to what we've been trying to do for the past ten years which is wage wars in two theaters of operation."

Both Gill and Goetten fervently attack GOP incumbent Tim Johnson.

Goetten said voters clearly want a change and Gill said Johnson lacks principle and cites Johnson's reversal on term limits, and his change of heart away from supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Johnson faces what appears to be token opposition in the primary from challengers Michael Firsching and Frank Metzger. But he could very well have the political fight of his life on his hands in November.

(Photos by Sean Powers/WILL)

Categories: Biography, Government, Politics

AP - Illinois Public Media News - March 12, 2012

Gramm, Lawrence Seek GOP Nomination for 11th Judicial Circuit

A Republican primary for judge in the 11th Judicial Circuit pits an entrenched public figure in the legal community against a former prosecutor and current defense attorney.

Central Illinois' 11th Judicial Circuit covers McLean, Ford, Livingston, Logan, and Wooford Counties.

The candidates seeking the Republican nomination in the race are both McLean County natives and, of course, attorneys, but that is about where the similarities end.

Paul Lawrence comes from a family of lawyers well entrenched in McLean County's legal scene, while Chris Gramm turned to law after working a few years as an interpreter in Japan for Mitsubishi, and has served as both a prosecutor and defense attorney. Gramm touts his highly conservative views and unabashedly points to his political activity when greeting voters.

"When they find out that Chris Gramm has been vice chairman of the McLean County Republican Party for example, or Chris Gramm has done both prosecution and defensive cases," Gramm said. "I think that those are interesting things."

Lawrence was appointed to the seat vacated when Michael Prall retired last year. He has been a judge for ten years although he has never run for judge or any office. He says voters do not really care about a judge's political views.

"I certainly have not, uh, advertised myself as having conservative views or moderate views or liberal views," Lawrence said. "I don't think that is an important factor when you're looking at a judge. I think when you're looking at a judge you need to find a judge who's going to follow the law and that's what I've been doing."

Lawrence is a complete political newcomer and admits he's not comfortable in campaign mode. Political influence in judicial elections is nothing new to Illinois.

A recent Supreme Court race drew national attention for its multimillion dollar campaign contributions. But while Chris Gramm has aligned himself with the McLean County Republican Party, he had only received a few modest individual contributions from people associated with the party as of a few weeks to go in the race.

Illinois State University judicial scholar Bob Bradley said Gramm's ideological leanings don't do the process any favors.

"You should judge what the arguments are, what the facts are and you shouldn't be looking at that from a conservative or liberal lens because that means you're bringing an element of partiality into that that is not supposed to be there," Bradley said.

According to Bradley, Gramm is trying to draw a distinction between himself and Lawrence. That's difficult to do in a judicial campaign where voters, even in higher profile cases, have little knowledge about candidates. Surface issues tend to center around civic involvement, and not much else. The one reliable tool voters have is the ratings given to judicial candidates by the Bar Association.

Lawrence proudly touts his 95.1 percent rating given by lawyers in McLean County, while Gramm's 25-percent rating leaves him in the "not recommended" column.

Gramm brushes that off as insignificant, saying attorneys tend to reject his ultra-conservative views and that doesn't mirror the feelings of voters in McLean County.

But there is one "below the surface" issue that neither candidate likes to discuss. Late last year, an organization representing companies that get sued moved McLean County off a watch list to number eight nationally in its ranking of so-called "Judicial Hellhole."

The American Tort Reform Association a Judicial Hellhole as a place where civil judges systematically apply laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner, usually against companies that are defendants in civil lawsuits.

Madison and St. Clair counties in southern Illinois are ranked fifth nationally, in part according to the association, because only about one in 10 asbestos cases tried there had any connection to the area.

Asbestos cases are also at the heart of McLean County's Judicial Hellhole status. Travis Akin is executive director of Illinois Lawsuit Abuse Watch. He said the main problem in McLean County is the conspiratorial nature of the cases being judged for the plainitffs.

"Companies that did not have a direct impact on exposing someone to asbestos are being held accountable through the idea," Akin said. "This civil conspiracy idea that these companies supposedly colluded to withhold evidence of the harmful effects of asbestos."

Akin said the problem is not the volume of cases in McLean County, but the out of balance size of the monetary judgments. Illinois Abuse Watch notes there was one jury verdict alone totaling more than $90-million last year.

Despite the Judicial hell hole designation, none of the judgments in McLean County asbestos cases had been vacated or overturned until a month ago, when appellate justices vacated two verdicts, one of them a $4-million judgment in a directed verdict case presided over by Judge Paul Lawrence.

Lawrence directed the verdict after Honeywell refused to comply with an order to produce a former employee as a trial witness--a product safety consultant Akin said had previously testified in 22 other McLean County cases.

Lawrence disagrees with the judicial hell hole ranking, saying lawyers in the county can attest to judicial fairness.

Asked whether or not there are problems with asbestos cases being tried in McLean County, Gramm said his work now is primarily in criminal cases so he can't offer an opinion on the civil suits. As to his chances of defeating a sitting, although appointed circuit court judge, Gramm said it happened ten years ago in McLean County and could happen again.

Categories: Biography, Government, Politics

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