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Tuesday, Dec 30, 2008

* Note from Rich: Here’s the roundup compiled by my new intern Mike. Have a great week. We’re taking some time off…

* Probe of Rod Blagojevich targeted state hiring going back to January 2003

Federal grand jury subpoenas released Monday by Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s administration after a long court fight show that a widespread-corruption investigation of state hiring extended even to decisions made before the Democratic governor took office in January 2003.

Now four subpoenas from 2006, made public as the result of a lawsuit the administration lost, shed a little more light on what federal authorities were examining.

The 17 pages of documents show federal investigators sought all personnel records from the governor’s office dating to Jan. 1, 2003, as well as computer records or other backup materials from the governor’s office and more than a dozen state agencies that report to the governor. The subpoenas, written between May and July of 2006, also sought detailed personnel information about 14 people, many of whom were state employees involved in hiring.

The release of the documents is the result of a long court battle waged over a state Freedom of Information Act request filed by the non-profit Better Government Association, which sued two years ago when the administration refused to hand over the subpoenas.

* Impeachment: Day 5, defense

* ‘We’re fighting shadows’

Blagojevich’s lawyer Ed Genson bemoans inability to call witnesses

Genson also told lawmakers they should not take a negative view of Blagojevich’s refusal to appear before them, citing his constitutional right against self-incrimination over the criminal charges he faces.

“He has a 5th Amendment right and he’s exercising that,” Genson said of Blagojevich. “Until the United States government tells us what he’s charged with, we choose not to talk about it.”

But comments from Currie and other committee members indicated Blagojevich’s refusal to appear may be one factor as they deliberate.

“We would be happy to have the governor stand up for himself and explain those shadows,” Currie told Genson. And Rep. Lou Lang (D- Skokie) said, “I’d be interested in just having the governor come here and tell the truth once.”

Genson repeatedly said Blagojevich had not “violated the law” and that the panel’s witnesses “have not shown impeachable conduct.”

* Blagojevich attorney: No reason to impeach

“There’s nothing in those tapes that says he did anything,” said Genson.

Lawmakers in charge of the impeachment investigation adjourned until they get word on the tapes. Chairwoman Barbara Flynn Currie said the timetable for an impeachment report is now uncertain. Before Monday’s wiretap tape news, she’d said a report could come as soon as next week.

Meanwhile, in making what could end up being closing arguments to the impeachment panel, Genson argued that if the circumstances surrounding Blagojevich’s arrest are stripped away, the impeachment case boils down to a dispute over health-care policy and an ongoing political and personality clash with lawmakers, neither of which rises to an impeachable offense.

“Rod Blagojevich was elected by the people of Illinois,” Genson told members of the impeachment investigation panel.

* Blagojevich lawyer gets few takers in defense of Gov.

In the end, however, Genson found few takers among the 21 members of the committee.

“Is anybody going to stand up for the governor?” Genson asked.

No one did.

* Impeachment panel pauses for ruling on tapes

* Impeachment committee may get tapes of governor

Impeachment committee chair Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, said the panel’s work will be on hold until it learns if, and when, it might obtain the tapes.

“If the judge were to say we will have a briefing schedule in three months’ time, I think probably the committee would decide that we should go back to look at what we already have and make a determination whether that is adequate (to impeach),” Currie said.

If the committee gets the tapes quickly, though, they could provide the final evidence to impeach Blagojevich, she said.

* Feds want lawmakers to hear 4 Blagojevich wiretaps

Federal prosecutors are asking a court to allow lawmakers investigating Gov. Rod Blagojevich to hear tapes of four potentially incriminating phone calls the governor had with a lobbyist.

* Rod Blagojevich tapes could be released next week

* Blagojevich lawyer: Tapes all talk, no action

But Genson said there’s no evidence the Democratic governor ever took action to make any of that happen.

“There is nothing in that tape that shows people were asked to give money or campaign contributions or anything. It’s just talk. That’s what it is: unfortunate talk, talk that shouldn’t have been made perhaps, but not action,” Genson said.

* Blago’s attorney: remarks don’t justify impeachment

* Ex-San Francisco mayor defends Blagojevich’s ‘this-for-that talk’

* Birthday present for Lincoln? Oust naughty governor

* Funeral arrangements for state Rep. Wyvetter Younge

A funeral service for state Rep. Wyvetter H. Younge, D-East St. Louis, will be at noon Saturday at Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2235 Bond Avenue in East St. Louis. Burial will be in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fairview Heights.

Visitation will be from 2 to 6 p.m. Friday at Wyvetter Younge Middle School, 3939 Caseyville Avenue in East St. Louis.

Rep. Younge, who was one of the longest serving representatives in the Illinois House and a lifelong resident of East St. Louis, died Friday (Dec. 26, 2008) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital after a brief illness. She was 78.

* Lawmaker: Raise gas tax to pay for road work

A southern Illinois lawmaker wants motorists to pay eight cents more for every gallon of gasoline they buy to help pay for a state road construction program.

State Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion, said Monday he will push the proposal when lawmakers reconvene in January. He said he hopes the idea jumpstarts talks about a statewide construction program that has languished over the past several years.

“Obviously, this is not the end of the road by any stretch of the imagination,” Bradley said. “I’m interested to see what people think.”

Bradley’s plan would allow the state to pay for about $7 billion in road construction, leaving out other projects such as prisons and university buildings.

He proposes adding 8 cents per gallon to the state’s gas tax, a 42 percent hike of the current 19-cent state tax. For an average motorist, they’d have to pay 80 cents more for a 10-gallon fill-up.

* Lt. Gov. Quinn to visit Pontiac to open fallen soldier exhibit

* Lt. Gov. Quinn not openly preparing yet

Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn has predicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich will leave office by mid-February, but Quinn’s preparations to perhaps take over the job appear to be minimal so far.

Quinn has had preliminary behind-the-scenes talks with a handful of possible staff members, but publicly he’s said that his very job is why he’s prepared to take the state’s top office.

“Being lieutenant governor, he is prepared to be governor,” said spokesman Bob Reed.

* Corruption crisis creates confusion in Illinois

* Senate election compromise worth considering

* Letter to gov seals Emanuel’s exit from Congress

Emanuel, first elected to the House in 2002, formally announced Monday he would end his House career Jan. 2 to join the Obama administration as White House chief of staff. He was the fourth ranking Democrat in the House, given the post after he ran the political operation that won back control of the House for Democrats in 2006.

He informed residents of his 5th Congressional District, anchored in Chicago’s North and Northwest Side neighborhoods, with robo calls on Monday. Emanuel is on a long-planned vacation to Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, traveling with his wife, Amy, their three children and friends.

Emanuel’s letter makes his departure official — he will not be sworn in to a fourth term when the new Congress convenes Jan. 6, and sets the stage for Blagojevich to call a special election to fill the vacancy. Unlike the Senate seat Obama vacated, filled by gubernatorial appointment, a vacated House seat is filled through a vote. Eleven people have filed statements with the Federal Election Commission that they are mulling a run, with more contestants expected. The Democratic primary front-runners so far (the district is heavily Democratic) are state Rep. Sara Feigenholtz (D-Chicago), Cook County Board member Mike Quigley and former Transportation Security Administration official Justin Oberman.

Emanuel must decide what to do with the $1,782,189 million in his campaign warchest, of which about $400,000 is a loan he made to his campaign.

* Emanuel to resign seat Friday

* Smoke ban boosts, burns

Before the state smoking ban went into effect last Jan. 1, many bar and restaurant owners feared that the new law would have a disastrous impact on business.

But revenue figures for 2008 show that sales tax receipts for bars, nightclubs and restaurants increased in the six months after Illinois went smoke-free. Illinois casinos, on the other hand, have seen a double-digit drop in gaming receipts this year.

“At the very least, I think it’s safe to say that [the ban] hasn’t hurt business,” said Barbara De Nekker, a community health specialist with Tobacco Free Lake County.

Anecdotal evidence from Chicago area restaurants and bars shows a mixed bag.

* Breathalizer Devices Required for Drunk Drivers in Illinois

Beginning January 1, Illinois motorists convicted of drunk driving will have to take a breathalizer test in order to start their car. The new law makes all convicted drunk drivers install a device in their car to determine their blood alcohol level. If it’s too high, the car won’t start.

Susan McKinney is with the Secretary of State’s office. She says despite some flaws, the law will be a big deterrent for anyone thinking of driving drunk.

* What the GOP needs: A dose of optimism and big thinking

For Illinois Republicans, a hair-thin line separates the sublime from the ridiculous.

They need a political grand slam, but the state GOP is gesturing for a bunt.

With a governor in disgrace and Mayor Richard M. Daley under fire for a stream of rising taxes and fees but depleted city services, Republicans are focusing on a special election for a U.S. Senate seat they have minimal chance of capturing.

Can you say small ball?

It’s time they stopped playing the lovable (I guess) loser role in Illinois and started playing to win.

* Exelon: No plans for second reactor in Clinton, despite rumors

* For Central Illinois, it’s tug-of-war to find economy’s silver lining

“Lower fuel prices have been driven down by the fact that the economy is not very strong,” Skaggs said. “On the other hand, it certainly does reduce the cost of living for anybody who has to drive at all.”

So goes the tug-of-war.

* Retail in ruin?

The specter of tens of thousands of retail stores being shuttered looms large after holiday retail sales look to be as dismal as predicted, driving up long-held skepticism that America is over-stored.

Four retail analysts — Britt Beemer, Howard Davidowitz, Larry Freed and Michael Niemira — believe retail names will be wiped off the map and thousands of stores will close in the new year.

Davidowitz estimates retailers will shutter 12,000 money-losing stores in 2009; Beemer predicted that half of today’s retailers will be in big trouble — perhaps at risk of shutting down — next year; Freed believes 20 to 40 retail chains will go out of business in the first three months of the new year, and Niemira predicts 73,000 retail locations will close in the first half of 2009.

* Financial woes have made many more price-conscious

* Food pantries hope giving spirit continues beyond holidays

“People don’t just eat at Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Charles McLimans, executive director of Naperville-based Loaves and Fishes Community Pantry. “I’m very worried about what is going to happen in January and February, which are traditionally our down months.”

McLimans said Loaves and Fishes experienced a 140 percent increase of first-time Naperville clients this November compared to the same time last year. He said overall enrollment in Loaves and Fishes’ programs is up 59 percent from 2007 for the first half of its fiscal year (which started July 1).

Along with job losses, Smith points out that many families also are being hit with growing food prices and transportation costs - something many food pantries are also faced with.

* CTA, Pace Fares Set to Climb

Soon, Pace bus fares will rise to $1.75. That’s an increase of $0.25 to $0.50 per ride. Pace spokesperson Patrick Wilmot says the fare hike is necessary, even though gas prices have fallen in recent months.

WILMOT: You know, the reason for this increase was never solely about fuel. But that said, fuel prices are expected to remain volatile, and we need to try to prepare for what can happen in the coming year.

Another issue, according to Wilmot: the money Pace gets from sales taxes has dropped along with the economy.

The fare increases won’t change the cost of Pace services for people with disabilities. As for the possibility of another fare hike in 2010, Wilmot says it’s way too early to know.

* City’s pothole purgatory

Chicago’s pothole population has roughly tripled in the last eight days.

The city had a daily average of 300 to 400 potholes in the days before Christmas, but the number jumped to more than 1,100 Monday, city officials said.

The dramatic freeze-thaw cycle is to blame, city officials said.

Last week, temperatures swung from -7 to 61 degrees — a good recipe for potholes. When water seeps into cracks, and then freezes and thaws, mini-craters can form, officials said.

Byrne said the city is increasing repair crews, starting seven-day-a-week repairs and getting overtime concessions from unions that should save about $300,000.

But there is so much work, crews might take six or seven days to fill holes, Byrne said. “It remains a challenge for us to keep up with the increasing demand,” he said.

* Potholes making presence felt

Byrne said a computerized map that tracks work crews and unfilled potholes will speed the patching process and added that an estimated $300,000 in savings from the overtime deal will be crucial in helping the city stay within its $10 million-to-$12 million pothole repair budget.

Still, it may do little to assuage frustrated motorists contending with the city’s pitted arterial streets, made worse by this month’s dramatic shifts between freezing, thawing and rain, a blend of physical process that has formed a worst-case scenario for repair crews.

Facing an enormous backlog now, the city this winter has concentrated on arterial streets and emergency situations—the holes big enough to damage cars. Chicago Transit Authority bus drivers and other city workers have been asked to call in pothole locations. The public has been urged to phone them in to the city’s 311 non-emergency line.

* Chicago area dodges worst of the flooding

* Rain, runoff pushing Illinois rivers to flood

* Flood warning remains; river levels fall

* Black-on-black murder rates: What are the solutions?

- Posted by Mike Murray        

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