Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gov. Pat Quinn will manage to tick people off, no matter what he does w/ budget

It is one of the quirks of following Illinois government – at a time when most people are thinking Independence Day, fireworks, and maybe even the Taste of Chicago, we are hearing “Auld Lang Syne” playing in our heads.

For Wednesday is the final day of 2010, as in the state government fiscal year. A whole new year with wonderous opportunities (heavy sarcasm intended) begins Thursday.

AMONG THE PEOPLE who definitely don’t view the “new” year with joy are Gov. Pat Quinn.

For it seems that the Illinois General Assembly is never going to do what Quinn had hoped for – return to the Statehouse for another day or two and approve some sort of borrowing plan that would give state government some extra money to work with for the fiscal year 2011.

The Illinois House of Representatives did approve something to authorize borrowing to help cover the money owed to bring the state pension programs back under control (a step in the right direction), but the state Senate never even tried to do anything along those lines. And even if the Senate were to approve something of its own, there’s an excellent chance that any momentum in the Illinois House to reapprove such a concept is long gone.

Which means this year’s financial “crisis” is going to be resolved by Quinn himself. Because the budget proposal that the Legislature did approve for the new fiscal year was unbalanced, but also gave authority to the governor to make whatever cuts are necessary to bring state spending under control.

IN SHORT, IT’S all in Quinn’s hands now. His aides say he plans to make an announcement Wednesday to let us know exactly where the cuts will occur, and how severe they will be.

I know for a fact that many school districts across the state are bracing themselves for cuts in the funding they receive from state government, which is going to translate into cuts in teachers and educational programs and maintenance of their facilities. The State Board of Education already has announced $300 million in cuts to public education programs for the upcoming year.

Could there be more? Pat Quinn’s name is already being taken in vain by educators across Illinois. To use the old cliché, his name will soon be “Mudd” among many differing interest groups.

Now I’m not claiming Quinn is blame-less. One of the drawbacks of his apparent lack of a political backbone at times is that the individual legislators don’t exactly fear his wrath. When he made grand statements during the spring claiming there would be severe harm caused to various state programs if he was forced to rely only on spending cuts to balance out the budget, nobody seemed to care.


But they don’t want to have to make the hard choice themselves.

The real solution to the state’s financial problems is a combination of some new revenue, along with some cuts. Not that we have a lot of fat in state government (what many people claim to be “fat” is really just programs that bother them ideologically), but I accept the fact that tough times can cause worthwhile programs to get slashed – no matter how much good they accomplish for our societ.

I also accept the fact that, since it took Illinois several years to get itself into its current financial mess (aggravated by the economic struggles that are impacting the nation as a whole), it likely will take several years to return to financial solvency.

INSTEAD, IT HAS all been dumped on Quinn. Our individual legislators have decided they would rather dump off the financial problem on somebody else, instead of trying to address it. After all, they could screw things up even worse if they took it.

Better for their re-election desires come November to let Quinn deal with the issue. Let him take the blame if somebody winds up dying if their particular program (particularly in the area of health care) that their lives had come to depend upon was suddenly slashed – if not outright anihilated.

For the record, Quinn has said his cuts to be announced Wednesday will focus on “bureaucracy.” Which means administrative expenses. Which sounds nice, in theory. Cut the “guys in suits” instead of the actual services.

Yet the problem is that a certain amount of administration is needed to run programs. One person’s pointless bureaucrat is someone else’s needed administrator. No matter how much one wants to deny it, it simply is not possible to cut this many billions of dollars (don’t forget we’re talking about a potential $13 billion deficit for the state, not all of which can be addressed this fiscal year) without whacking at some worthwhile services.

AS FOR THOSE individuals who have ideological concerns about many social services programs and are pleased to be able to use these financial struggles to knock out programs they never wanted in place to begin with, it just seems to me to be a callous means to get one’s way.

Which in many ways is building up my resolve to want to see Quinn get his own full term as governor come the Nov. 2 elections.

I’d hate to see the same legislators who were weak-willed enough to dump the state’s financial problems in the governor’s lap try to claim his Election Day defeat as some sort of victory for themselves.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Would ‘Sen. Oprah’ have taken paycut?

Ever since one-time professional wrestler Jesse Ventura managed to get himself elected to a term as governor of Minnesota, I have realized that no one’s candidacy for elective office should be considered too absurd to happen.

Yet Oprah Winfrey for U.S. Senate?

IF ONE WANTS to believe the testimony that came out Monday in U.S. District Court, now-impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich seriously gave thought to filling the vacancy in the Senate from Illinois with the celebrity talk show hostess.

Blagojevich’s one-time chief of staff, John Harris, testified that he tried to tell the governor he was “crazy” for even mentioning her name, and that people would think he was just trying to trivialize the issue.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Harris said the governor was “trying to get some of that gold dust sprinkled on him.”

Blagojevich, according to Harris, responded, “that’s where you’re wrong.”

IT SEEMS THAT Blagojevich may well have a solid grasp on one aspect of the modern-day electorate. There are people who resent the fact that anyone believes they should be interested in electoral politics or public policy.

There are those people who will only get intrigued by political campaigns when the element of celebrity or fluff enters into the equation. Therefore, perhaps there are people who would be more inclined to take the issue seriously if Oprah’s name were in the mix – rather than any of the people (Jesse Jackson, Jr., Jan Schakowsky, Danny Davis) whose names actually were discussed in those days following the election of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., to U.S. president.

I remember back in those days thinking that Jackson or Schakowsky were the logical choices for that U.S. Senate vacancy – if one were interested in finding someone with long-term potential who would competently and adequately fill the post.

Of course, I always realized those were probably the last things Blagojevich were interested in. I figured he wanted a political ally in place to stick up for him – should the U.S. attorney’s office proceed with their intentions back then and continue to investigate him.

WHAT HAS COME out of the Blagojevich trial thus far is the degree to which Blagojevich was willing to bend to the desires of Obama in picking a Senate replacement – provided that the president granted the now-former governor something to make it worth his while.

The idea of Valerie Jarrett, a former mayoral chief of staff and Chicago Transit Authority head, as a senator died when Obama was not willing to play along with Blagojevich’s desires – which is why she is now a high-ranking adviser to Obama himself.

But it seems that Blagojevich got it into his head that because of the few African-American people in the Senate (only six in the body’s entire history), it would be bad to replace Obama with a white guy. Plus, he wanted to reinforce his support among black voters for his future hopes of having political aspirations.

Ultimately, that is why we got Roland Burris in the position, who is the only black person currently in the U.S. Senate, whose selection by Blagojevich served as a call of “drop dead” to all the political people who wouldn’t give him anything.

YET WHAT WOULD have happened if Oprah Winfrey herself had somehow seriously been offered the position? She definitely would have become the highest-profile freshman member EVER of the Senate.

It might have even helped Blagojevich in terms of gaining support among women if he could claim a tie to her. Although that idea is questionable, considering that there was some evidence that Oprah on politics is not as influential as Oprah trying to sell anything else.

When Oprah became one of the first people to seriously talk up the idea of Obama as president, it seems that many of her older white woman fans couldn’t get their minds wrapped around that idea. They wound up losing some respect for her – rather than gaining respect for Obama himself.

I can’t think that Oprah herself would have seen the folly of having anything to do with Blagojevich, and would have fled from any serious talk of sending her to Washington.

BESIDES, THERE IS the very serious issue of why Oprah would want to be one of 100 senators, instead of the undisputed star of daytime television talk shows – one so popular that next year she will leave conventional TV and become the focus of her own television station.

All Oprah! All the time!

Why would she want to deal with the doldrums of being on Capitol Hill, while also having to give up her broadcast empire in order to comply with ethics guidelines that try to keep all 100 members on equal footing in the public eye.

Not only that, but I can’t think the salary of a senator ($174,000) would be a pitiance compared to the millions Oprah pulls in from her broadcast interests.

IN SHORT, BLAGOJEVICH may have had a lot to gain from being associated with Oprah. But she certainly wasn’t going to take such a big pay cut to be associated with Milorod.

That is why we now have “Roland, Roland, Roland” in the Senate – at least for four more months.


Monday, June 28, 2010

EXTRA: 4 months to ponder Burge fate

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” or “Better late than never.”

It’s hard to say which cliché is more appropriate Monday, upon learning that a jury in U.S. District Court thought that a series of criminal defendants with significant records were credible enough witnesses to warrant “guilty” verdicts against retired Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge.

NOT THAT BURGE will have a record of his own for criminally brutal behavior on the job back when he ran the violent crimes unit out of what is now the Calumet Area on the city’s Far South Side. He gets to consider the possibility of a significant prison term during his retirement years for lying about his past.

The jury that took two days of deliberations reached a verdict of guilty of a charge of perjury, and two charges of obstruction of justice. Specifically, when the city was sued earlier this decade because of Burge’s conduct, he said under oath that he never used torture tactics while on the job.

The jury today essentially said that is not true. But just as Al Capone was never prosecuted for his racketeering activity or any of the violence that erupted in 1920s era Chicago, Burge got away without being prosecuted for his conduct.

Capone is officially a tax cheat, while Burge is a convicted liar – so to speak.

IT IS BECAUSE of that aspect that I have a hard time getting excited about the “guilty” verdict – although I must admit I had braced myself for the possibility that the jury would acquit Burge, which would have brought emotions of intense disgust to my mind.

Reading the Chicago Tribune account of what jurors said in those moments after being released from their jury duty, it seems that some jurors had a hard time initially with the thought that they would find a police officer guilty.

It was only after they re-read the list of charges and realized the narrow focus of what was involved in a perjury conviction that they were able to bring themselves to vote unanimously for Burge’s guilt, the Tribune reported.

It seems to me that it was fortunate them for those of us who have been appalled by Burge for the past two decades that the statute of limitations had expired. Because if the jury had been asked to vote “guilty” for criminal charges related to the brutality, they might not have been able to do so.

PERSONALLY, I GET the same feeling about Burge whenever I think about those aging Klansmen from the 1960s who brutalized civil rights workers or black people, and now try to claim that prosecuting them in the current era when they are aging old men is somehow immoral.

Burge himself seems to be ready to try this tactic, as his attorney points out that the retired cop is being treated for cancer and ought to receive probation.

Of course, those aging bigots got several years in the prime of their lives to experience a freedom that they shouldn’t have had. I’m sure there are those people who will say that Burge can never truly be punished because he got to spend the past 17 years as a retired cop living in Florida.

Can we ever have a true sense of justice so many years in the future? Even U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald concedes this point, telling reporter-types Monday, “that’s not a full measure of justice.”

BUT I’M SURE Burge will feel the emotional strain as he does the countdown to Nov. 5 – the date when he will have to stand before a judge and face the moment of sentencing. I don’t think he’ll get anywhere near the 45-year prison term that prosecutors were tossing about Monday as a possibility.

But I’m sure the thought of that figure will burn its way into Burge’s brain in the coming months, which might very well be the ultimate punishment that the 22-year Chicago Police Department veteran and native of the South Deering neighborhood will have to suffer.


Will Daley top Meigs Field demise to thwart those who want to “pack heat?”

Remember back when we had political fights over the fate of Meigs Field? That small-aircraft airstrip located near downtown Chicago had its defenders who hated the fact that Richard M. Daley wanted to turn it into a lakefront park.

Yet Daley got his way ultimately by strongarming his opposition. Remember the day you woke up to find out that city officials sent bulldozers to the airstrip overnight to make the facility unusable for aviation needs?

I SUSPECT DALEY in the next few days is going to come up with a scheme that will be totally offensive to “good government” types that will ensure it is virtually impossible for somebody who lives in the city to keep a firearm in their place of residence.

Depending on how early you read this commentary, there is a good chance that the Supreme Court of the United States will already have struck down the city ordinance that makes it a crime to own a firearm.

The law was enacted back in the days of Jane Byrne as mayor, and was meant to prevent people from gaining new firearms. After having been in place for 28 years, the effect is that hardly anyone who lives in Chicago has a firearm that is legal.

Chicago Police literally are safe in assuming that any gun they find in the city limits is not registered as having been in their possession prior to 1982, and therefore not legal.

BUT THAT HAS the firearms advocates – the kind of people who think they’re making some big political statement by walking into a Starbucks wearing a pistol in a holster – all upset. Their political organizations have been thorough in pursuing this case through the court system.

The end result is that they got their case before the Supreme Court, which these days has a composition of judges who are inclined to want to support conservative causes. Which is why few people expect anything other than a court ruling that says Chicago has behaved unconstitutionally for the past 28 years.

Yet anyone who seriously thinks they can dig out a pistol and start using it to threaten anyone who gives them a funny look (or anyone who thinks they’re going to take it upon themselves to enforce “justice” in our city) had better think twice.

Because Daley has said flat out he’s going to find ways to get around any court ruling.

OFFICIALS WITH THE city’s Corporation Counsel have suggested that the city may enact a ban on stores that sell firearms – thereby requiring people who want handguns to go through the inconvenience of buying them elsewhere, or through mail order.

Or, if there isn’t a flat-out ban on gun shops, we probably will get city officials who start enforcing the letter of the law when it comes to anyone who wants to open up such a shop. Make it next to impossible for anyone to actually sell handguns in Chicago, and you make it likely that city residents will have to think twice before making such a purchase. No running out and getting a gun because your neighbor’s dog dumped all over your front yard.

Maybe the city will even come up with additional steps that people wanting to buy a handgun in Chicago will have to submit to before such a purchase can be made.

We are talking about the city that used bulldozers at 2 a.m. to tear up the runways of Meigs Field, thereby making it near suicidal for any airplane to think about landing there.

WHICH IS WHY the site of a downtown airport is now a concert pavilion (one that carries the corporate identity of Charter One), and nobody seriously entertains the idea that corporate airplanes will ever land again on Northerly Island.

If you think I’m exaggerating, take Daley’s word for it. He said last week the city would find some new law to pass – one that would ensure that Chicago would duplicate the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court struck down the federal government district’s gun ban, yet the number of people who have managed to work their way through the D.C. bureaucratic maze to get a handgun is miniscule (numbering in the hundreds, out of an area with just under 600,000 people).

This is going to be a case where the “goo goos” and the “gun nuts” will find some common ground to rant and rage agaisnt Chicago city government and Hizzoner Jr.

Yet I can’t get too offended, mainly because I realize that many of the conservative ideologues who want to take down the city’s gun ban include many of the same people who so vehemently oppose the idea of abortion being a legal medical procedure.

ON THAT ISSUE, the activists openly admit their goal (because they are unable to strike down the basic concept) is to push for so many restrictions that actually obtaining an abortion can be a near-impossible experience for some women.

So when the City Council acts on special gun legislation (perhaps at a specially-scheduled meeting that may be held this week), there will be a sense that all that is really happening is that the conservative ideologues are getting their long-used political treatment thrown back in their faces.

That sounds, to me, more like justice than anything said by someone who thinks that giving him a pistol will make Chicago one bit safer.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

What will be Brady’s third strike?

It will be interesting to see how Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady’s latest comments play out.

Brady decided to take a stance on the minimum wage, which varies from state to state and where Illinois is scheduled for another increase come Thursday – from $8 per hour to $8.25.

WHEN THAT OCCURS, the minimum hourly salary that can be paid to an employee in Illinois will match the rates of Connecticut and the District of Columbia, and will rank only behind Oregon ($8.40) and Washington ($8.55). In short, people working in Illinois will be doing well when it comes to compensation.

Yet Brady is the guy who put himself on the record as wanting to undo Illinois’ minimum wage. He wants us to be just like those people in all the states that surround Illinois – where the state minimum wage rate matches the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

Does Brady really want to be the guy who gets blamed for people whose salaries are already pathetically low having to take a pay cut? Is he a guy who really thinks places like Georgia or Wyoming are more desirable than Illinois because those states have minimum wages of $5.15 per hour?

Maybe Brady thinks Puerto Rico is the ideal (because the commonwealth’s minimum wage is only $4.10).

A PART OF me cannot believe that the state senator from Bloomington can be so out of touch that he can think the promise of a pay cut is the way to encourage people to vote for him.

Then again, I’m sure that Brady has already written off the possibility of people who have to rely on jobs that pay minimum wage would actually consider voting for him. Perhaps he thinks he can discourage people who really do have to work for a living for little compensation from voting altogether.

Actually, I think I already know the way this issue will play out in coming months. Because in the initial news reports that told of Brady’s desire to mess with the minimum wage, it came out that the person who pushed for a significant increase in Illinois was now-impeached and indicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

He got the General Assembly to go along with the plan that calls for annual increases in Illinois’ minimum wage rate every July 1. That is why the current $8 hourly rate will increase on Thursday to $8.25.

IT WAS A popular move with the interests that care about people who work low-paying jobs because there aren’t many alternatives, although I’m sure the business interests that want to perceive the issue as one of cutting into their potential profit margin would be eager to see Illinois be reduced to the level of Indiana or Kentucky.

Which is why I’m sure Brady is going to go about screaming the name “Blagojevich!!!” over and over whenever this issue comes up in the future.

He’s going to want to take advantage of the public distaste for the man now on trial at the Dirksen Building by claiming that all he’s doing is repealing one of Blagojevich’s actions. Get people worked up enough to think “Blagojevich!!!” and perhaps they will overlook the fact that all he’s really doing is taking a whack at the salaries of people who often have to rely on every penny they can get in order to support themselves.

Perhaps I find this stance a little appalling because I have worked as a freelance writer, occasionally taking assignments that paid so little that – when one considers how much time I spent on them – they paid less than minimum wage.

NOW I KNOW Brady likely will be careful to bring this issue up only in situations where he is before sympathetic crowds – heavy on small business owners and where the hired help are non-existent.

But it is because of moments like this that I have not taken seriously the polls that claim Brady to be ahead of Gov. Pat Quinn when it comes to the Nov. 2 general election.

It’s not that I doubt that Quinn has his problems, or that the GOP faithful are so anxious for Election Day to come that they are determined to vote. By comparison, nearly a third of people who identify as Democrats in Illinois claim in these polls to be undecided.

Which means that if they do vote, they will wind up falling in line for Quinn, which would cut the Brady margin significantly enough to put the incumbent governor into the lead.

WHILE THERE IS a chance they may not care enough to want to vote, all it is going to take is a few more whacked out statements like wanting to cut the minimum wage at a time when people who have jobs are struggling to get them upset enough to want to vote against Brady.

Brady already is the guy who sponsored a bill to reinstate the now-illegal practice of using carbon monoxide gas chambers to euthanize pets, and now he’s the guy who wants to cut the salaries of lower-income people.

Which means the real question these days ought to be what loopy stance will Brady take on another issue – constituting his “third strike” that sends him back to the political bench against Quinn.


Friday, June 25, 2010

EXTRA: Cubs fans need to lighten up

I’m not a fan of the Chicago Cubs,so I don’t have any real reason to care about pitcher Carlos Zambrano.

Yet I can’t help but think that the Cubs fans who are spewing their bile Friday all over the Internet need to lighten up in their vitriol related to their one-time ace pitcher, who managed to get himself suspended indefinitely for having a temper tantrum in the dugout at U.S. Cellular Field – where Zambrano had managed to give up four runs in what became a 6-0 defeat to the Chicago White Sox.

WHAT AMAZES ME is that Zambrano’s temperament really hasn’t changed during the nine years he has played major league baseball on the North Side. He has always been an outspoken, clownish hothead.

Back when he was winning games and making Cubs fans think they had found their perennial ace pitcher, his outbursts were interpreted as evidence that he was a colorful character. But now that he is struggling to the point where the Cubs earlier this season turned him into a relief pitcher for awhile, he’s not considered so cute.

It is as though Zambrano is confirmation of the perennial truth of that scene from the film, Bull Durham, where Kevin Costner’s “Crash Davis” character educated Tim Robbins’ “Nuke Laloosh” about the fungus growing on his shower clogs – telling him that when he won 20 games in the major leagues, his fungus would be evidence he was a colorful character.

“Until you win 20 in the show, it means you’re a slob,” Costner/Davis said.

SO IS ZAMBRANO the temperamental equivalent of a slob, for his tantrum against first baseman Derrek Lee (which was probably truly meant for himself on account of his homerun that wound up costing the Cubs a chance at winning)?

It’s not like this is the first time Zambrano has had an outburst on the field. Nobody should be shocked that he is capable of behaving in such a manner. Perhaps it is just evidence that we shouldn’t be looking to ballplayers to serve as our character role models.

Remember his six-game suspension last year. Or the fight he got into in 2007 with former catcher Michael Barrett?

That latter incident pops into my mind because at the time it was used as evidence that Barrett was somehow a problem, and that Zambrano was a victim. It was Barrett who provoked possibly the most memorable of all Chicago baseball brawls against White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski just the year before. It was Barrett who got traded away to the San Diego Padres because he couldn't get along with Zambrano.

BUT BACK THEN, Zambrano was THE MAN of the Cubs pitching rotation. Now, he’s the problem, so his temperamental nature (which is something many athletes have) is to be used against him.

Which means that one of baseball’s oldest cliches remains eternally true – You’re Only As Smart As Your Batting Average.

Or in Zambrano’s case, his earned run average, which as of Friday was an incredibly mediocre 5.66.


What will ruling mean for Milorod?

Jeffrey Skilling of Enron. Newspaper publisher Conrad Black.

Those are a pair of business executives whose professional failures left a lot of people worse off financially and angry, and the Supreme Court of the United States on Thursday issued a ruling that gives credence to the belief that the public outrage unduly influenced prosecutorial types to go after them – resulting in criminal convictions and prison time.

SO AS MUCH as it would seem odd for anyone to willingly want to make that duo into a trio, perhaps it is natural that Rod Blagojevich has an interest in the concept of “honest services” and when, if ever, such behavior should be considered criminal.

Blagojevich had been counting on an overwhelming ruling of support for Skilling and Black, hoping that it would knock the legitimacy out of many of the criminal charges that the one-time Illinois governor is now on trial for in U.S. District Court for Chicago.

The high court ruled that in Skilling’s case (he was one of the top-ranking Enron executives who saw his company wither away into insignificance under his watch), his professional failings were not necessarily criminal.

Yet the court didn’t overturn any convictions. It merely said the lower court that found him guilty in the first place would now have to re-review his case to see how many of the convictions stand up to a strict interpretation of the law.

IN SHORT, IT is a victory for Skilling in that it could significantly reduce the amount of prison time that officials would claim he should have to serve.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg got to write this court opinion, where she said that there had to be clear evidence of receipt of a bribe or some sort of kickback of financial value in exchange for someone’s negative professional conduct on the job in order for there to be a law broken.

In short, someone behaving stupidly is not automatically a criminal – even if that incompetence crosses over and has a negative impact on the public.

That would be helpful to Blagojevich if discussed broadly because he could claim to have never received anything significant. Then again, prosecutors are starting this week to show the evidence of people who say Blagojevich was obsessed with getting people to either give him a significant political post that would enhance his image and power or help him financially to create some sort of foundation that he could run once he left electoral politics.

THAT FOUNDATION THEORETICALLY would allow Blagojevich to do good work for the people, or it would allow him to pay himself a significant salary for working whenever he felt like it. A lot of this depends on one’s politically partisan interpretation of an official’s character to begin with.

Prosecutors already have altered the charges once against Blagojevich so as to make them less reliant on “honest services” fraud. They will claim their case stands up regardless of Thursday’s high court ruling.

U.S. District Judge James Zagel seems inclined to agree, refusing on Thursday to put a halt to the Blagojevich trial until people could further study the Supreme Court ruling.

So the Blagojevich trial continues, which made the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform happy. The good-government type group issued its own statement saying it wants “justice” to be done for Milorod.

“TESTIMONY IN THE trial to date certainly makes it appear as though Rod Blagojevich saw public office as a tool for forcing payments to benefit himself,” the group said.

Of course, the federal prosecutors, in their admitted desire to prevent Blagojevich from impacting the appointment of a replacement senator from Illinois for Barack Obama, prevented that so-called moment of payback from ever occurring.

Does this Supreme Court ruling mean that the prosecutors should have waited until Blagojevich made the Senate appointment – perhaps having U.S. marshals march into a press conference and arresting him at the moment he tried to make his decision public?

It certainly couldn’t have been any more humiliating for him that way than what really happened – picking him up at 6 a.m. at his house when he was getting ready to go jogging.

THE ONE THING that seems obvious about the Supreme Court’s ruling is that it will not significantly impact the conduct taking place in Zagel’s courtroom. Too many people have an interest in seeing this case proceed to an outcome of conviction for this to stop it.

Which means it likely will be that same Supreme Court that ruled Thursday that Skilling and Black may have had the “honest services” fraud law wrongly applied to them that will someday have to decide whether Blagojevich should be considered within that group as well.

Only Rod Blagojevich could find himself in a situation where he would eagerly want to turn a duo into a trio of people whom the public thinks of as scum-bags, regardless of what any court may say otherwise.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Asian carp comes to Chicago. What now?

With the international character that has long comprised Chicago, perhaps it is only appropriate that we now likely have Asian carp among our residents within the city limits.

For that is what the situation has become, even for those of you smartalecks who like to claim that the Far South Side of Chicago is its own little world – and not really a part of Chicago.

FOR THE FEAR that officials have long had seems to have been confirmed – we have the Asian carp in the area. All of those tests in the past that made it appear that the carp had not yet reached the Chicago area appear to be wrong.

For the news reports that came out Wednesday indicated the most blatant evidence that the carp are real – somebody who was fishing for fun actually caught one. It was down in the 10th Ward, in Lake Calumet to be exact. The news reports indicate the fisherman was in the part of the lake near the Harborside Golf Course.

The carp itself was nearly three feet long and weighed about 19 pounds.It’s carcass is now being sent off to various laboratories where it can be studied in great detail while people fret about what can be done.

What catches my attention is the fact that just a few weeks ago, officials from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources working with federal environmental and wildlife officials actually poisoned part of the water of the Little Calumet River that runs into the lake.

THEY FIGURED THAT any carp in the water would die and their carcasses would float to the top. None did. Yet now, we’re finding this particular fish in the lake that literally lies only about six miles from Lake Michigan. Lake Calumet has been reconfigured so many times throughout the centuries that the presence of an Asian carp almost doesn't seem invasive at all. Map provided by Chicago Area Paddling/Fishing Guide.

Which means we’re destined to get more rounds of political ranting and complaining from our Great Lakes States neighbors (particularly those whiners from Michigan, the state) who want to make it appear as though Chicago personally has introduced the Asian carp to the Great Lakes.

Now I realize the seriousness of this issue. The Asian carp is a species not native to this part of the world, and its presence in the Great Lakes would be devastating to the species that are native to Lake Michigan and its counterpart lakes.

I also realize that this is a species that is determined to spread. After all, it is one that was introduced in the United States into the Mississippi River near Mississippi, and has managed to swim upstream all the way across our country to the point where that river meets up with the Illinois River.

IT ALREADY HAS done its damage in downstate Illinois, and is inching its way across the waterways to Chicago – despite the attempts to poison it and use electronic barricades to keep it from advancing.

Which is why I am convinced of two things

One is that this fish is going to make it to Lake Michigan – if it isn’t there already. My gut feeling says it is already there (even though we don’t have evidence of that fact, yet!). It is a determined little sucker, we have to give it credit for that.

The other is that people getting all worked up in trying to get the courts to issue orders to penalize Chicago for this problem are missing the point.

WE NEED TO be working together to figure out a way to minimize the potential ecosystem devastation that could be caused by the Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes. Having Michigan officials take a “holier-than-thou” attitude and trying to play the victim is a waste of time.

If anything, I agreed with one person who used the Internet to comment that trying to blame Chicago for the Asian carp would be the equivalent of filing lawsuit after lawsuit against Detroit officials because of all the air pollution we now have due to automobiles.

It might be true in a theoretical sense. But it would be a waste of energy that would accomplish nothing.

Now I am not claiming to have the solution. All I know is that there will be people on the Supreme Court of the United States (who in the past have refused to issue court orders demanding that the locks allowing water flow between Lake Michigan and the rivers across Illinois be closed) and perhaps President Barack Obama himself who will start hearing a lot more heated rhetoric.

PERSONALLY, I AM waiting for the day that some political partisan (maybe even Rush Limbaugh) starts blaming the Asian carp on Obama himself. It will be intriguing to hear the convoluted logic they will devise in their mini-minds.

If anything, we ought to remember those 2008 elections – when the Great Lakes states of the Midwest were largely united behind Obama’s campaign, instead of our usual partisan divide that tends to see our part of the world as Chicago versus the Midwestern U.S.

For if we don’t unite in trying to find a solution, I can’t help but think THAT will be the factor that allows the Asian carp to get to Lake Michigan. We might as well run up the white flag of surrender now, if that’s the case.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Would Blagojevich be less broke if he behaved a little more civilly as governor?

A lot of people like to lump Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan into one mass – corrupt politicos who managed to get their hands on the post of Illinois governor and use it for wrongdoing.

Yet I can’t think of anyone who knows seriously what they are talking about who thinks the two men are identical. In fact, the big difference between the two was reinforced in my mind when reading reports Tuesday about testimony in Blagojevich’s trial about how he privately worried who would wind up paying for his legal bills.

WHEN ONE GETS the federal government as ticked off at you as Blagojevich has, it is inevitable that the prosecution is going to spend big bucks to build their case. Which means that even if you wanted to be cheap, it would cost a significant amount of cash to pay for the lawyers and their activities that prevent the prosecution from bulldozing your rights right into a prison cell.

Ryan endured the same government desire to put him away when he was on trial in the same Dirksen Building federal courthouse a few years ago.

Yet Ryan as a political person was the type who understood the political culture of favors to the degree that many officials were sympathetic to him. Some even felt like they still owed him something, even after his indictment.

Blagojevich claimed he was out to take a sledgehammer to the idea of such a political culture. But what he did was ticked off so many people who should have been his political allies that they were eager to dump him, and aren’t going to shed a tear if he gets a criminal conviction.

RYAN’S ATTITUDE IS why the Winston & Strawn law firm, in the form of partner James R. Thompson, was willing to provide significant legal services on a pro bono basis to him. Of course, Ryan was lieutenant governor when Thompson was governor.

For Thompson, I’m sure he saw his law firm’s work on behalf of Ryan (which he once estimated had a value of $20 million) as fighting on behalf of a friend. I’m sure that privately, Thompson sees the fact that he was unable to get either an acquittal in the federal court or an overturning of the conviction on appeal as a personal failure on his part.

I can’t envision anyone is going to take it as a personal failure if they lose on behalf of Blagojevich. They’re certainly not going to give him the same financial break that Ryan received (although one can argue the “break” wasn’t worth much if he was found guilty anyway).

The Chicago Tribune reported about Tuesday’s testimony against Blagojevich that his concern about legal bills came from the same Winston & Strawn law firm that handled Ryan’s court case.

HIS ONE-TIME CHIEF of staff, John Harris, testified about how angry Blagojevich was at the law firm for being so hard-nosed, particularly with their payment schedule. Had he been able to delay the payments a couple of months, he would not have had to report the expenditures on his campaign finance disclosures for quite a bit of time.

In 2007, he had already paid the law firm about $1 million for work they did on his behalf, and then he received another bill for $700,000, which the law firm was demanding payment for up front. Does this mean the same people who took it as a cause to fight for George Ryan were only in it for Blagojevich’s money?

Or did Ryan break the law firm financially so they have to be more hard-nosed about billing their clients?

Not that these particular fees were enough to bankrupt Blagojevich (although I expect he will be by trial’s end). He had a campaign fund. Money that Blagojevich would have liked to have used to get himself elected to a third term as governor in this year’s election cycle would up going to pay for attorneys.

YET THE REALITY of putting up a defense in the federal court system means that his campaign cash won’t be enough. The reality is that the special funds to ensure proper legal representation of the indigent will wind up covering a part of the cost of Milorod’s legal defense.

For those who think it unfair that Blagojevich can tap into such funds, I would only point out that if the one-time governor is going to be hit with so much activity that it drives him broke financially (some would argue he was emotionally bankrupt long before being indicted), then the taxpayers will have to assume some of the cost.

I am just wondering if Blagojevich these days wishes he had been a bit more friendly with his government colleagues. Perhaps then, they’d be a little less eager to see him get convicted – and go broke in the process.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Federal jury’s verdict in Burge case will say more about us than about him

Let me say up front that I don’t have a clue how the trial of one-time Chicago police Commander Jon Burge is going to turn out.

Burge himself spent parts of three days testifying on his own behalf, insisting that he was proud of his record as a police officer and claiming that he never did anything that could be construed as torture against would-be criminal suspects.

OF COURSE, THAT was the same thing that he said when testifying during a civil lawsuit related to the conduct of Chicago Police during his time as commander of the then-Pullman Area violent crimes unit on the Far South Side.

Federal prosecutors believed him so much that they brought the current charges of perjury, claiming they can show the whole thing is a lie. Burge seems determined to think of himself as the ultimate victim, being persecuted by clueless people who don’t understand the realities of maintaining the public safety and protecting people from violence.

Which means that the outcome of this case is going to come down to how sympathetic the people on the jury panel are toward police. Are they they kind who are willing to give police some leeway when it comes to their professional conduct?

Are they also the kind of people who think that certain “criminals” deserve what they get, which means they’re not about to get all worked up over reports of violence and abuse?

I DON’T KNOW the jurors. We ultimately will have to see how they rule in this case.

The one thing I do know, however, is that there are people among the public who will be upset if a “guilty” verdict is returned against Burge. And I’m sure most of those people perceive themselves as being decent and respectable contributors to our society.

It caught my attention that the Chicago Tribune, in reporting that Burge had finished his testimony Monday morning, had a supporter among the people who chose to use the newspaper’s website to make their own anonymous comments. As this one commentor put it, “hire more police officers like Mr. Burge, and Chicago won’t have anymore days when 40 are shot in 24 hours.”

Not that those who chose to comment on the Chicago Sun-Times website were any more sympathetic. Among the least racist remarks I read there was one that said, in part, “he dealed with the scum of the Earth on a daily basis,” adding later, “who cares if he fried their ______” (insert racist epithet here).

THIS WAS A reaction to the stories that tried to make a dramatic point against Burge by pointing out the moment of his cross-examination when prosecutors got Burge to admit that he named his boat, “the Vigilante.” As though this is a clue to the psyche of the one-time Chicago cop who probably thought all this was behind him when he retired in 1993 and moved to Florida.

Personally, I got a giggle out of Burge’s explanation for the boat name – he claims it turned up on a computer-generated list of names, and that it was the only one he had never heard before.

So being the “captain” of the “Vigilante” merely means that Burge is an individualist – if we’re to believe Burge.

In reading the reports of Burge’s testimony (he was on the stand for a combined total of about six hours last week, along with one hour on Monday), it becomes apparent that there was no great dramatic moment such as what a courtroom television drama would give us.

PROSECUTORS DID NOT catch Burge in a blatant lie. They didn’t come up with some discrepancy that he could not explain. They weren’t able to crack him psychologically (perhaps because they didn’t consider putting a typewriter cover over his head to make it difficult for him to breathe) to get him to talk.

Burge still maintains that he did nothing illegal or immoral back when he was a part of the Chicago Police Department.

Which means this case, once again I will write, will come down to how sympathetic the jurors are toward police use of physical force in the performance of their duties. Which, to be honest, is sometimes necessary. We wouldn’t arm officers with firearms and clubs if we didn’t think there were times when those weapons would have to be used.

Which means these jurors are going to have to make a judgment call. And we in society are going to have a mixed reaction. Some of us will be gratified, while others will be appalled, no matter how the jurors rule.

PERSONALLY, MY OWN thoughts about Burge go back to my days when I was a police reporter for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago. We’re talking back in the late 1980s when I used to pay attention to every murder and many crimes committed in the city (and it also was an era when the city’s homicide totals reached record highs) as part of my job.

Even in that environment, the stories that passed through the rumor-mill out of the Pullman Area (which, as part of a city attempt to erase the image of the Burge era is now known as the Calumet Area) police were that something funky was taking place in those neighborhoods at the far south end of the city.

I’m not claiming that I knew anything definitively about Burge. If I had, I would have written it. Perhaps what I am saying is that there was a lot of smoke, which, to follow the old cliché, means there might very well have been a fire. Which is probably about as superficial a thought as those people who want to believe that anyone who comes to the attention of the police must have done something to warrant it.

Regardless, I will be one of the many people scattered across the Chicago area who will be anxiously awaiting the jury’s verdict. Not that I expect the verdict to resolve the issue in anyone’s mind. I think most of us made our decision a long time ago, and we’re hoping that the jury verdict reaffirms our own way of thinking.


Monday, June 21, 2010

Did you spend the weekend in the dark?

As a reporter-type person, I fully appreciate the reason why the big headlines during the weekend related to the severe storm that pushed through the Chicago area Friday night were related to mass transit and the one-time Sears Tower.

The latter structure that for many years was the world’s tallest had some of its windows knocked out by the winds that reached speeds of about 70 miles per hour. That’s a lot of shattered glass on the streets of the south Loop (and around the area, depending on how far the high winds blew it about).

WE SHOULD BE thankful that no one who happened to be in downtown Chicago Friday night was killed or severely maimed by glass shards flying through the air.

There also were the delays in running the Metra commuter trains for people trying to get home during the Friday evening rush hour – which is when that storm that spread across the United States and has now worked its way to the East Coast managed to hit Chicago.

It was an inconvenience experienced by many as crowds trying to get on board delayed trains meant a human backup that must have been unpleasant to experience – particularly on a night when most people were just eager to get home following yet another week of hard work.

Yet I also realize that when most people recall this weekend, they’re not going to think of it as the time that glass flew through the air above the Loop. Nor will they think much about the delay they experienced in getting home Friday night.

IF ANYTHING, THEY’RE going to recall the conditions they found once they got home.

Because those storms managed to play havoc with the electrical power lines, which meant that many people got home to find they had no electricity. Some people had to endure the entire weekend without electricity.

Considering that temperatures also reached the high-80s at times, that meant no air conditioning.

Which means it was a miserable weekend for many.

NOW I HAVE to confess that I was lucky. Where I live, our inconvenience was minimal.

When those winds hit our area at about 4:30 p.m. Friday, they created a situation where electrical power kept fading in and out.

At the time, I was using my laptop computer to try to write a story for someone willing to pay me some money for my work. While my laptop had a battery that immediately kept it going continuously, my electrical “loss” was that the lights kept going on and off, and the device that gives me a wireless connection to the Internet kept starting and stopping.

Which meant that one moment, I had Internet access, while another moment, I did not. I had to wait about a half-hour before I was able to verify a couple of facts I was using to write a story.

I WAS LUCKY in that power never was lost for more than a few seconds, and after about a half-hour it quit misbehaving. I didn’t lose power. Some 555,000 customers of Commonwealth Edison can’t make the same claim

That is more than I can say for many Chicago-area residents, some 64,000 of whom still hadn’t had their electricity restored as of Sunday morning. ComEd officials said the utility company expected most of those to be restored by day’s end.

But there were some people who came home Friday night without electricity, and never got it back. Perhaps they had to leave for work Monday morning, wondering what they would come home to (even though theoretically, they knew it was likely it would be restored by then).

In my case, the closest I personally came to such a case involved my father, who lives in a nearby town but happens to be on a vacation trip with my step-mother. His house lost power at about 5 p.m. Friday and did not get it restored until 11 a.m. Sunday.

HE PICKED THE perfect time to be away from the house, which as far as I can tell did not sustain any other weather-related damage. He will return Monday having to do little more than figure out which items in his refrigerator went bad because of the forty-plus hours it endured without electrical power. Not that everybody in the Chicago area was lucky enough to be on vacation when the storm struck.

For those who couldn’t find a friend or relative to impinge upon, it must have been a primative weekend – on account of how dependent our society has become on having a steady source of electicity to keep us going.

They get my sympathies because I recall the time I experienced a lengthy power outage in my residence. But that was for about 19 hours – most of which was overnight while I slept. I’m sure the sweaty, clammy conditions I woke up in that morning without electricity were nowhere near as bad as what some people experienced this weekend.

Which is why I almost wonder if those stories emphasizing the Willis Tower windows went so far as to trivialize the weekend. It may be a significant building in Chicago (and the United States), but I doubt it had much to do with what most people experienced during the weekend.


Saturday, June 19, 2010

Here I thought I was watching a Chicago-themed mediocre movie, not Holy scripture

It has become something of a running gag throughout the years between my brother, Chris, and I.

We’ll pass by a church, or by anybody or anything, that is a combination of religious and either flamboyant or garish.

TO WHICH I will tell my brother, “you could use a little churching up.”

To which he will (without a doubt) respond, “I don’t want to listen to no jive-ass preacher talking to me about Heaven and Hell.”

No, we’re not really talking about the merits of theology (if anything, it would be somebody telling me I need some “churching up”). Nor are we in any serious philosophical engagement.

We’re just doing a riff off of a 30-year-old film that people of a certain mental composition want to elevate into a cinematic classic, while others will view it is as overbloated mess.

WE’RE TALKING, OF course, about “The Blues Brothers,” which took the musical characters created by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live and used them as the basis of a two hour-plus film that told the story of how Jake and Elwood Blues went to wild, wacky and crazed extremes to raise the $5,000 needed to pay that year’s property tax assessment on the orphanage where they had been raised.

That particular scene my brother and I do comes just after Jake and Elwood are chased down the stairs by a yardstick-wielding nun who is disgusted at what religious reprobates her two former charges have become.

Cab Calloway’s “Curtis” character was the one telling Belushi’s “Jake” to “get to church.” When he finally does show up, he gets to hear James Brown’s “Rev. Cleophus James” character sing and dance and we learn that, “Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ. I have seen the light!”

Somehow, when I first saw this film, I never thought I was seeing anything significant. I thought I was seeing a film with an overbloated storyline (although a wonderful R ‘n’ B soundtrack album that I still own, both in LP and compact disc form) that ran too long (although I understand what I saw in the theaters was a version edited from the Belushi/Aykroyd version that would have required an intermission midway through).

BUT NOW, THE Catholic Church seems to think we’re seeing something significant. The Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano (the so-called employer of another Saturday Night Live character, Father Guido Sarducci, who supposedly was the paper’s gossip columnist), published a series recently about Catholic references within pop culture.

The newspaper included “The Blues Brothers” as a film with a Catholic message.

I never realized that naming the yardstick-wielding nun Sister Mary Stigmata or that constantly having the lead characters declare themselves to be “on a mission from God” was enough to get the blessing of the sort-of official newspaper of Pope Benedict XVI.

Perhaps it was the pictures in the background of then-new Pope John Paul II that did the trick. I doubt it was the sound of legendary bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn uttering two of the crudest, yet most memorable, lines in cinematic history.

NOT THAT I think many of the film’s fans were all that interested in what the Pope or his advisors thought about the film. Probably no more so than all those Beatles fans who learned months ago through the newspaper that the Catholic Church has “forgiven” them for leading many of our society into that counter-cultural mass that many of us associate with the 1960s.

But now we have church approval to be able to watch the film that showed us “Illinois Nazis” suffering a deadly fate when their car drove off a highway ramp under construction – then suddenly managed to soar through the air high over the Hancock Building (all 1,127 feet of it) before crashing through the pavement of the street below.

Personally, what I find memorable about “The Blues Brothers” (and the reason why I occasionally dig out the DVD I own of the film) is the fact that Belushi used his sense of Chicago (he was a Wheaton native) to include scenes shot in neighborhoods that film crews usually wouldn’t venture into – and some of which no longer exist.

The old skid row on Van Buren Street in the south Loop, and the decrepit Trailways bus station that used to be in the north Loop. The Dixie Square shopping center in suburban Harvey (which never looked that good when it was really open for retail). The Chez Paul restaurant (“Mayor Daley no longer dines here. He’s dead, sir”) and the Joliet Correctional Center in the same film.

IT ALSO GAVE the 95th Street Bridge over the Calumet River that separates the South Chicago and East Side neighborhoods its moment of cinematic glory. Nobody who passes over that bridge today can help but wonder how it was physically possible for a broken-down former Mount Prospect police car to jump the width of the bridge while its trusses were opening.

Perhaps it was a religious miracle – one that would make “The Blues Brothers” worthy of its religious recognition now being received.


This may be an older version of the 95th Street Bridge (the current one dates to 1958), but it isn't too hard to envision a battered old automobile trying to make the leap.

Friday, June 18, 2010

EXTRA: White Sox manage to win against 'phenoms.' Will this be the 2010 highlight?

A week ago, two of the National League’s top pitchers were Carlos Silva of the Chicago Cubs and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals.

Silva is a 31-year-old journeyman who this year has pitched the best baseball of his life. His first eight starts for the Cubs resulted in eight victories. 8-0 for the season.

UNTIL HE WENT up against the Chicago White Sox last Saturday in the middle game of the BP Crosstown Classic. Silva didn’t get his butt whupped. But he did get his first loss of the 2010 season. It seems to be contageous, since he picked up his second loss of the season on Friday against the Los Angeles Angels.

8-2, with a 3.65 earned run average. On the whole, the best season he has ever had. But he’s not as impressive-sounding as he was a week ago.

Then, there is Stephen Strasburg, the young kid who last year was a star college ballplayer. This was his first year as a professional, and the Washington Nationals are such a bad ballclub (worse than what we have in Chicago) that they rushed him up to the major leagues. Thus far, he has made it look like a smart move – winning his first two major league starts.

But in his third game started in the major leagues, against the White Sox in Washington, he finally wasn’t able to win (although many are willing to focus on his 10 strikeouts) that give him 32 for his first three starts – topping the 29 that J.R. Richard of the Houston Astros struck out during his first three starts back in 1971.

HE DID NOT lose either. Gavin Floyd managed to match him, and the two were in a 1-1 tie when they were taken out for relief pitchers – who ultimately were responsible for the White Sox prevailing once again by a 2-1 score.

It is nice to see that the White Sox (who lately have been on a hot streak, winning eight of their last 10 games) are snapping out of their early-season funk, although I still don’t expect a season this year of much better than a .500 winning percentage.

If anything, seeing them in these two games of the past week will make it all the more frustrating when the White Sox blow ballgames later this season in such a stupid fashion.

And let’s be honest, we all know that will happen.


This is why ideologues should not be allowed to dominate our government policy

I’m very sure that I am one of the few people who is not bothered by the presence of Roland Burris in the U.S. Senate, because I always thought the idea of having a special election to pick someone to serve for a few months before the 2010 elections take place was a waste.

In my mind, that sentiment was reinforced when I learned of a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling this week that claims we must have an election to pick a person to complete the remainder of the six-year Senate term to which Barack Obama was elected in 2004.

THE APPEALS COURT based in Chicago issued a ruling that says the governor’s authority to make appointments to fill a Senate vacancy really means he has a “duty” to issue the order for a special election.

But the appeals court also ruled that the Illinois constitution is such that it gives the governor no leeway in terms of picking a date for said elections.

Therefore, had Blagojevich gone ahead and scheduled an election to pick a replacement for Obama – rather than picked Burris out of spite to his political opponents who were leading for his impeachment and removal from office at the time – his only choice would have been to schedule that special election for Nov. 2.

That’s the same date as the general elections across the country, and also the date upon which Illinois voters will be asked to pick between Alexi Giannoulias or Mark Kirk (there are a few alternate party candidates in the running, but none who are putting together anything resembling a campaign structure that deserves to be paid attention to).

ARE WE IN Illinois really going to subject the nation’s political observers to the sight of a senator for eight weeks, to be followed up by the winner of Giannoulias/Kirk/whatever?

Are we in Illinois really that eager to give Roland Burris an unceremonial dump that we would boot him from Capitol Hill on Nov. 3, rather than Jan.3, 2011?

I would think we in Illinois would be better off creating less confusion on Election Day by just accepting the fact that we have “Roland, Roland, Roland” for another two months, and that he will be rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ out of Washington and into political retirement as of next year.

Yet I’m sure we’re going to get the ideologues who will claim some high-minded noble goal is at stake in booting Burris from Washington sooner, rather than later.

FOR THOSE OF you who think it is just as simple a matter as letting the person who wins the full six-year term on Nov. 2 take office eight weeks early, no it isn’t.

If you’re going to go to all the trouble of demanding that the courts impose a special election, you have to be prepared to have a separate full-fledged special election, and not think you can make a special case by which one person in this country who gets elected to the Senate in November can have a political bonus of two extra months.

I would think that the rest of the country would be jumping down our throats if Illinois tried to do that, because every other victorious candidate would think it unfair that their counterpart from Illinois managed to get a two-month jump start on building up seniority – just because their state couldn’t have a goofy situation such as we had in Illinois back at the beginning of 2009.

WBEZ-FM in Chicago reported that the Illinois attorney general’s office is still studying the appeals court’s ruling, trying to figure out if there is some way they can interpret it so that there won’t have to be a full-fledged election, or if this is now going to have to wind up before the Supreme Court of the United States.

BECAUSE I AM hoping Illinois does not have to go through the embarrassment of having a separate election, and having significant numbers of people get confused on Election Day and wind up casting ballots for people for the wrong post as a result.

The Chicago Tribune reported recently how Burris, during 2009, received a pension of $121,747 for his years of government service (those three terms as state comptroller, along with one as state attorney general), along with his $174,000 salary for representing Illinois (in pretty much a competent, low-key manner) in the U.S. Senate.

If that were the case, I might just have to do a write-in vote for Burris. Roland for eight more weeks, then he gets to take his bucks accumulated during the past year and await the day he gets his final rest in that glorious tomb he already has had constructed for himself.


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Who has the nerve to tell Rod Blagojevich to quiet down at the courthouse?

I don’t know who I feel sorry for more – U.S. District Judge James Zagel, or some law school students who are going to get more than they bargained for from their summer internship.

Zagel is the federal judge presiding over the government corruption trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and federal prosecutors are demanding that they give them all the more authority to ensure that their view of the former governor is the one that prevails.

IT SEEMS THAT prosecutors can’t stand the fact that Blagojevich likes to talk, and is more than willing to make statements to the television cameras that offer up his view of what is happening on a daily basis during his trial.

Insofar as the TV types are concerned, of course they’re going to use the footage because it is about the only video they get. It’s not like they can take the cameras into the courtroom and get pictures of the actual trial.

But it means that after a broadcaster does his standup bit to summarize what was said in that day’s testimony, television viewers are getting to see Blagojevich as a prominent player. Perhaps even more prominent than the prosecution.

So they want a “gag order.” Literally, they want for Zagel to issue an order that would prevent Blagojevich from saying a word about his case. His attorneys also would be barred from speaking. We’d have to rely on the prosecutorial spin for any sense of what was happening in the courtroom.

I FEEL SORRY for Zagel because, as much as I am sure he is tempted to issue the order, he has to realize he will come off looking like a buffoon if it is granted. Maybe not as bad as one-time U.S. District Judge Julius Hoffman did when he ordered defendant Bobby Seale bound and gagged in his chair to keep him quiet.

But you know someone will want to make the comparison.

Personally, I don’t worry about Blagojevich’s trial “commentary” because I think people of sense will see it for the blowhard rhetoric that it truly is. If anything, I can’t help but think that Milorod is digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole everytime he speaks.

He is building up the resentment of a segment of the population that truly wants him to have to serve a lengthy prison term (preferably in a maximum-security facility), instead of the 12 to 18 months of incarceration that many government corruption convictees wind up doing.

IF HE IS found “guilty,” there will be so many people disgusted with the Blagojevich name that they will want him to be taken down hard.

So I say, let him talk.

If the jurors truly are as isolated as Judge Zagel wants them to be, they won’t hear any of this – or be impacted by it in any way. If they are influenced, then the problem is a tainted jury, not Blagojevich himself.

Not that I am surprised in any way to learn that federal prosecutors want Blagojevich to say nothing, while they pile on their many bits of evidence (documents and audio are now being put on the portion of the Justice Department website that provides information about the U.S. attorney for Northern Illinois).

HAVING COVERED FEDERAL trials as a reporter-type throughout the years, I realize that some prosecutors really do believe that any defendant who does anything other than immediately plead guilty and beg for the maximum penalty possible is somehow guilty of perjury. They really do believe the deck should be stacked completely in their favor.

The extent to which they will tolerate eccentricity is a case like one-time outfit guy Joey Lombardo – who gave us that classic mob photo of his face covered with a Chicago Sun-Times that had an eyehole cut into it so he could see forward.

But I honestly believe that federal prosecutors brought much of this circus atmosphere on themselves when they initially indicted Blagojevich with circus-stunt atmospherics. Having the U.S. attorney himself declare that Abraham Lincoln was “rolling over” in his grave was virtually an engraved invitation to Blagojevich to try to out-quip the prosecution.

I was glad to learn Wednesday that Zagel did not immediately give in to the request for a gag order, although I’m not sure exactly what constitutes the “lawyerly agreement” that he wants prosecutors and defense attorneys to reach about what can be said outside the courtroom – which in theory is supposed to be beyond the control of the judge.

BUT WITHIN THAT courtroom will be law school students who thought they were signing up for an internship with Illinois government, and a chance to work a few months for free for the staff of Gov. Pat Quinn. What they get to do is traipse down to the Dirksen Building on a daily basis, and report back their first-hand observations of the Blagojevich trial to the governor’s legal staff.

I find the governor’s official explanation somewhat cute that this is a worthwhile experience for future lawyers in that they are getting to observe a trial. Of course, so much of what they are seeing with regards to Milorod is so irrelevant to the way the judicial system typically works.

I’d hate to think that Pat Quinn is helping to contribute to the mental corruption of future attorneys by exposing them to Blagojevich. That alone might be reason enough to hope that Scott Lee Cohen can get his act together this week and file valid nominating petitions to run for governor.

Then again, that idea might be a longer shot than the concept of Blagojevich actually keeping quiet for any serious length of time.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

EXTRA: Shaft/Chef beating J.J. Jr.?

It was 1973. Singer/songwriter Isaac Hayes is performing a concert, and he has civil rights activist Jesse Jackson acting as his announcer.

Moving up some 37 years to the present, we now have the sight in Illinois of Isaac Hayes challenging Jesse Jackson. As in junior, the congressman.

IT IS NOT the late singer (above) known best to one generation as the creator of the theme song from the “Shaft” movies (and to a younger generation as “Chef” from the South Park cartoons).

But it seems that Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., has as his token Republican opponent in this year’s elections a mortgage industries salesman/pastor who shares the same name as the entertainer who once gave us the song, “Chocolate Salty Balls.”

It also seems that Hayes (as in the would-be politician) thinks he can be the 2010 version of Mike Flanagan, the Northwest Side Republican candidate who actually managed to beat Dan Rostenkowski for a seat in Congress.

That was the 1994 election that was supposedly a big Republican year. More importantly, Rostenkowski was under criminal indictment during the election cycle, which drove down the Democratic voter turnout sufficiently enough to let Flanagan have his one two-year term in the House of Representatives.

HAYES’ CAMPAIGN IS touting a poll claiming that the ongoing criminal trial of former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, which Jackson Jr. may wind up having to testify in, is having a similar effect.

Hayes (right) has a campaign that is claiming a poll showing him with potential for the lead over Jackson come Nov. 2.

Specifically, it says that 56 percent of those surveyed thought Jackson was not representing the Illinois Second Congressional district (Far South Side and surrounding suburbs) adequately, and that 79 percent of people do not think Jackson has been truthful in talking about his ties to Blagojevich.

Remember that for a time, Jackson Jr. was considered to be a possibility to get the U.S. Senate appointment that ultimately went to Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill.

SO DEMOCRATS WHO should be able to whomp all over their GOP opponents may have to accept the fact that they will have to work a little bit harder this year. Public Policy Polling came out with a new survey that said, among other things, that in the gubernatorial race, Gov. Pat Quinn only has 51 percent of people who say they are Democrats on his side – with another 29 percent “undecided.”

Not that I’m saying the Hayes polling is as credible as the new gubernatorial poll (which overall, shows Republican nominee William Brady leading Quinn 34 percent to 30 percent). I can’t help but punch so many holes into the theory that Jackson is lagging that far behind Hayes. This could really be a case where many people hear the name “Isaac Hayes” and think they’re getting the musician. Considering that we're the state that once nominated followers of Lyndon LaRouche for statewide offices because the names of regular Democrats "Pucinski" and "Sangmeister" sounded "too foreign," anything is possible.

Perhaps they think actor Richard Roundtree will show up to take office.

As though having a “black private dick, that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” serving in Congress would be any worse than some of the knuckleheads we have now.


What’s wrong w/ sleeping in on Sundays?

I am not overly religious, and I am one of those people who enters a church either for special occasions or when I am a reporter-type person on assignment.

Having said that, I cannot comprehend those people who are getting worked up over the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is trying to stir up some excitement/resentment with their advertising campaigns promoting athiesm.

THEIR LATEST CAMPAIGN has been in Chicago for about a month, although the Chicago Tribune reported Tuesday that the group is stepping up their effort. It is billboards being put up along the sides of Chicago Transit Authority buses that travel about the city.

Instead of quoting “historical” figures about the need for separation of church and state or promoting the idea that there is no God (attorney Clarence Darrow saying, “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose”), the group is giving us what they consider to be a simple, practical reason not to go to church services every Sunday.

“Sleep in on Sundays.”

In a prepared statement explaining their new advertising billboards, the group says, “what the world really needs is a good night’s sleep.”

BLASPHEMY TO SOME, but blunt truth to others, many of whom already are using Sundays to get some extra sleep.

My point is that I don’t think this advertising campaign is going to sway anyone. It may get some people worked up into an outrage, which may very well be the point of those who put these billboards together. Is this worth getting worked up over? Or would religious types be better off taking a nap until it goes away? Image provided by the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Which means that if the overly-religious among us (considering that most churches offer services throughout the week, I have never understood why it is all so important to have that one service that everybody pretends to attend and enjoy) really wanted to tick off their opponents, they’d ignore these billboards.

What gets me about this tactic, however, is that it is not at all a new one in Chicago.

I STILL REMEMBER back a couple of decades ago a group that was trying to promote the idea that couples were couples, regardless of gender. Hence, we got billboards put up on the elevated train platforms used by the CTA that included pictures of various couples kissing.

Those included some interracial couples, and even one couple of two men.

I was a reporter back then for the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago, and I still remember the what became of those billboards – they got vandalized within a day. Graffiti to block out the images of kissing.

And since the CTA prefers not to leave graffiti in place, they immediately removed the billboards – which the group that had paid for the advertising space could not afford to replace (printing up those signboards over and over can get expensive).

WHICH MEANS SOME may think the moralists “won,” but only at the expense of making themselves look ridiculous. Had they just ignored the things, they would have gone away after a month (the amount of time the ad campaign space was paid for).

They’d probably be long forgotten by now. I doubt I would still remember them.

I hope we don’t get anything equally stupid in Chicago this time around. Although it would be harder to vandalize these particular ad boards because they are being put on the side of the buses. How many people are crazy enough to try to tag the outside of a bus. If it starts moving, one could get hurt.

Easier to go inside and put a mustache on the Clarence Darrow picture that may be installed on bus’s inside.

THEN, OF COURSE, there was the Chicago attorney who specializes in divorce cases who advertised her own law practice by taking out billboards in the downtown area three years ago that read, “Life’s Short. Get a Divorce.”

What ticked off the moralists then were the pictures included on the billboards – showing scantily clad bodies to imply that divorce would result in lots of sex with better-looking people than one could possibly be married to currently.

The part that amused me about that particular ad was the fact that the attorney herself posed for the ad – it was her body in skimpy lingerie that gave many passersby a cheap bit of tittilation.

By comparison, nobody is going to get that much of a kick out of these new attempts to irritate the conservatives among us – one-time poet laureate Carl Sandburg isn’t about to tittilate anyone.

YES, THE FREEDOM From Religion Foundation even manages to drag in the author of “Chicago,” saying that people who worked in the “City of the Big Shoulders” would have been so tired from all their work that they would need the extra sleep.

People with sense who object ought to just keep quiet. Snapping at the bait just makes them seem foolish. Besides, they will need to save their strength to object to whatever the NEXT advertising campaign on a social issue turns out to be.


Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How isolated can court keep its jurors?

Being a reporter-type person who has periodically covered courthouses, I am aware firsthand of the degree to which the courts try to keep potential jurors isolated from the real world.

There is always the admonition to quit reading the newspaper, on the off chance that the case in which the juror is serving is considered interesting enough to be written up. Since any worthwhile reporter is going to root around and find out details beyond what comes up in testimony (including some personal observations, to give readers a full understanding of what is happening in court), there are bound to be things in print that a judge would rather not have a juror know about.

THAT IS PARTICULARLY important in cases where, for whatever reason, things are going haywire for the prosecution. Coverage will reflect that, but a judge wants the jurors to be unaware of any of that.

Plus, in a really big trial, the news coverage isn’t contained to the courtroom. Activities taking place elsewhere will also be written about. Yet a judge would rather that the jurors think the world ends at the courtroom walls.

Yet people do manage to hear things. They gossip. In today’s world with the so-called “social media” becoming all-important, it becomes possible (for some, even preferable) for people to get information anywhere, no matter how much someone tries to isolate them from the rest of society.

That seems to be the situation with regards to the trial of Rod Blagojevich, where the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper reported Monday that some of the potential jurors in that particular criminal case were overheard discussing the news coverage.

WHICH MEANS THEY heard the news coverage.

Which means the courts now have to figure out if information is so accessible that there is no way they can isolate people enough from the coverage of the goofy political world otherwise known as Milorod-land. What the newspaper bases their report on is an interview with a man who got rejected as a juror. He now says he recalls being in the juror room and overhearing a conversation among some of his one-time juror colleagues who were discussing the news stories that had been in the newspapers during the previous weekend.

At this point, the jury selection process was taking place. So the coverage was about that process. Which means the stories were about the potential jurors themselves.

IT SEEMS THE potential jurors, if the one juror reject’s interview is to be believed, were amused at the way in which the newspapers wrote about Judge James Zagel’s attempts to knock dow those people who were coming up with what the judge considered to be extreme excuses to try to get out of serving on the Blagojevich jury.

The newspaper reports that while none of the people who actually spoke about this made it onto the Blagojevich jury, at least one person who is now on the jury was within earshot.

So is it possible that the jury pool has been tainted by the fact that the news coverage of this particular trial is going to emphasize all of its absurdities?

I’m going to be curious to see how Zagel tries to address this potential problem. It is not like Zagel didn’t make his desires clear early on.

HE MADE A statement to all the jurors that they were not to expose themselves to anything about the case that occurred outside the courtroom. No newspapers or television/radio news broadcasts, no reading their e-mail (in case someone decides to send out some stupid Blagojevich-themed joke to all their friends that spreads to the masses), no Twitter or Facebook (which some people are using to make brief observations or spread newspaper/broadcast reports about the case.

Are we going to get the muffled sound of a juror being yelled at after being taken into a private room for a “discussion” with the judge? Or is this severe enough that we only made it about one week into what could be a four- or five-month trial before jurors have to start being expelled?

I doubt things will get that out of hand. I suspect the last thing the judge wants to do is start tapping into the pool of alternate jurors this early in the process. Because running out of people and having to declare a mistrial would become Blagojevich’s fantasy.

Thwart the process now and drag it out into the future (even though I know anyone who thinks the federal government would ultimately drop the case because it is being prolonged too much is being naïve).

BUT IT MAKES me wonder in today’s world if it is possible to isolate people so much that they can truly be the type of juror who has never heard of Rod Blagojevich or the situation within Illinois state government in recent years.

Because I’m not sure I would want someone whose intellectual curiosity is so limited that they have no interest in public policy that they can easily ignore news coverage of such issues. Is that really who we want serving on a jury?


Monday, June 14, 2010

Obama should be thankful he got this far without significant blame for BP oil spill

President Barack Obama says he plans to pre-empt our television programming Tuesday night so he can speak to the nation about the grave environmental mess created some two months ago when a BP oil rig began spewing the substance into the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, the conservative pundits are going to try to find ways to trivialize the moment – hence Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., going on the Sunday morning network talk shows and saying it wouldn’t have taken him more than 50 days to want to kick some “A-double-S” on this issue.

YET OBAMA OUGHT to consider himself lucky in one sense, because the public thus far has had the sense to see this as a problem caused, and compounded, by the one-time British Petroleum.

The amount of rhetoric that seeks to blame Obama for the situation in the gulf – oil washing ashore in Louisiana and along the Florida coast, thereby killing the tourist trade that many of those communities rely upon for their economic survival – has mostly come from such hard-core partisan nutcases that real people have enough sense to dismiss it as trash talk.

How much longer will this last?

Probably not much longer. After all, many people were desperate to believe that the company itself could control the situation before it could become an environmental disaster of historic proportions. Obviously, they failed.

SO NOW, WE’RE in a case where on top of all the other problems and situations our federal government must address, it seems they’re also going to have to deal with restoration of the gulf – which likely will suffer for decades before things are restored to what they once were.

That is, if they are ever fully restored.

If anything, I see this particular Obama speech as an attempt by the president to pre-empt criticism from regular people. (The nutcases will always behave like malcontents).

Just last week, the Gallup Organization released a poll saying that 40 percent of people surveyed approved of the way Obama was handling himself with regards to the oil spill, while 46 percent disapproved. Not that this issue dominates the way people think of the president – Gallup also had Obama with a 47 percent approval rating overall, compared to 44 percent who disapprove of his job performance.

IT SEEMS TO be a partisan thing – 18 percent of Republicans approved of Obama’s handling of the oil spill, and 14 percent of his job performance overall. Among his so-called Democratic allies, 62 percent approved of Obama and the oil, while 75 percent approved of his job performance.

Among those who insist on calling themselves political “independents” (a.k.a., too wishy-washy to pick a political party), the figures are 35 percent backing Obama on oil and 43 percent backing him overall.

As the poll itself notes, the biggest dropoff is from Democrats. My guess is that Obama wants to appear to be doing something so as to keep that 13 percent gap of Democrats who like his job performance but think he’s screwing up in the gulf from getting larger – just like the blotches on various weather report radar screens are doing these days when they show us just how big the oil spill has become.

I must admit to being appalled whenever I see those projections of just how large the contaminated area will become – particularly when they show an oil spill headed south down the Florida coast and then swinging around and headed into the Atlantic Ocean and up the U.S. coast, possibly as far as Washington itself.

YET I FIND it hard to believe that there was much more the federal government could do in those early days. Which is why I am reluctant to dump all over the president. He may be screwing up on other issues, including immigration reform, but he hasn’t blown this one.


It’s just that I can’t help envision how nasty the Republican and conservative rhetoric would have been had the Environmental Protection Agency immediately rushed to the area to strong-arm the situation away from BP.

We’d have heard the same conservative nitwits who have engaged in what trash talk has taken place complaining that the federal government was meddling with the affairs of business, and possible acting in ways that would exacerbate the problem and screw up the BP public image in ways that would hurt their future profitability.

WE’D HAVE HEARD all the talk about Obama being a socialist who should learn that the “American Way” includes backing off and not presuming that government can “fix” the problem.

Of course, that is all ridiculous. In fact, this situation may very well show us the type of incident where federal government is best positioned to address a problem – one that has spread across so many states (I just read a report about how Utah thinks they will be affected) that it would be ridiculous for us to expect each one to have its own policy for handling cleanup.

Particularly if this spill also winds up spreading south and west toward Mexico and the Caribbean islands. Then it becomes an international issue. Do we really want Mississippi state officials doing our negotiating?

So now, we get to wait until Tuesday when Obama gives us his address that causes a segment of our population to rant and rage that “there’s nothing good” on television, then we will get the punditry analyzing his every word for days thereafter.

WILL THE PRESIDENT give us an address similar to his comments in the days following the “discovery” of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright – which many remember as an eloquent, but honest, assessment of race in our society today?

Or will it be some rhetoric likely to enrage Rush Limbaugh into a more vitriolic rampage on air than Wright ever gave from the pulpit of his South Side church?