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CAPITOL RECAP: September 24, 2022

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Capitol News Illinois
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https://capitolnewsillinois.com

Another Democratic senator charged in bribery scheme

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EMIL JONES III: State Sen. Emil Jones III has been charged in federal court with three criminal counts tied to his dealings with a red light camera company.

On Friday, Sept. 23, he pleaded not guilty to the charge in an arraignment, and he waived his right to be indicted by a grand jury.

Jones, a Chicago Democrat, is the son of former Senate President Emil Jones Jr. The younger Jones has served in the Senate since 2009 following his father’s retirement. He is deputy majority leader and chairs the Committee on Licensed Activities.

He also is on the ballot for reelection in November and does not have an opponent.

The charges relate to legislation Jones introduced in 2019 calling for a statewide study to evaluate red light cameras, formally known as “automated traffic law enforcement systems.”

According to the charging document, Jones later agreed to limit the scope of any such study to cameras operated only inside the city in exchange for payments to himself and an unnamed associate from someone identified only as “Individual A,” who had an ownership interest in a red light camera company that did business with municipalities outside Chicago.

Prosecutors allege that from April through September 2019, Jones solicited and agreed to accept a $5,000 payment from Individual A, as well as an unspecified payment and a job to the associate identified as “Individual B.”

Senate records indicate the bill passed out of the Transportation Committee on Nov. 12, 2019, but was never voted on by the full Senate.

Jones is also charged with arranging the deal through interstate commerce by using a Google email account. And he is charged with lying to federal agents during their investigation of the matter.

Jones is the second Illinois state senator to face charges related to a red light camera company. In 2020, then-Sen. Martin Sandoval, also a Chicago Democrat, was indicted on similar corruption charges related to a red light camera company identified as SafeSpeed LLC following a raid on his Statehouse office. He later resigned from office and pleaded guilty to bribery and tax evasion.

Sandoval agreed to cooperate with a continuing investigation in exchange for delayed sentencing. He died in December 2020 of complications from COVID-19 and never served time in prison.

Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, issued a statement Tuesday calling for Jones to step down from his leadership position and committee chairmanship, but stopping short of asking for his resignation from office. Jones stepped down from leadership later in the week.

PRESSURE FROM GOV: Gov. JB Pritzker called on two Democratic state senators Thursday, Sept. 22, to resign their seats amid allegations of misconduct.

That included Jones and Sen. Michael Hastings, D-Frankfort, who faces accusations of domestic violence against his estranged wife, according a report by public radio station WBEZ in Chicago.

Both have given up their roles in the Senate Democrats’ leadership team but remain in the Senate.

“Senator Jones is accused of accepting bribes. And Senator Hastings is accused of abusing women. They should answer the charges and have their day in court,” Pritzker said in a statement Thursday. “But in the best interests of their constituents, these men must resign from their offices. Resigning only their leadership roles falls short of what the public should expect. I want to send a clear message to the people of Illinois: Corruption and abuse have no place here.”

So far, however, Senate President Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, has not gone that far.

“The gravity of the accusations required immediate action and consequences, which is why the Senate president demanded and received resignations from their leadership posts,” his spokesman, John Patterson, said in an email statement. “Now it is up to these individuals and their constituents to determine their futures.”

The governor’s statement came just a little more than six weeks before the Nov. 8 general election in which both senators are on the ballot.

Hastings faces a challenge from Republican police officer Patrick Sheehan in the 19th District in the city’s south suburbs. Once considered a rising star in the Democratic Party, he is an attorney and Army veteran and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq.

Hastings’ legal troubles began more than two years ago when he was sued for racial and gender discrimination by his former chief of staff. The state hired a private attorney to defend him and eventually agreed to pay $100,000 to settle the case.

But according to WBEZ, he now faces accusations of domestic abuse from his estranged wife.

“The allegations made therein are baseless and without merit,” Hastings said in a statement Thursday through his spokesman. “I look forward to continuing to serve the best interests of the hard-working men and women of the south suburbs.”

His Republican rival, however, joined Pritzker in calling for Hastings’ resignation.

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BACK PAY LAWSUIT: The Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday, Sept. 22, rejected a lawsuit filed by two former state legislators who sued for back pay they believed they were due for raises that they voted against while in office.

Former Sen. Michael Noland, D-Elgin, and former Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, argued that the pay reduction measures they voted for violated the legislative salary clause of the Illinois Constitution, which says, “changes in the salary of a member shall not take effect during the term for which he has been elected.”

But in a 6-0 decision, the court declined to rule on the constitutionality aspect, saying the former lawmakers undercut their own case by voting in favor of the measures, touting them to the public and waiting too long to file their claims.

Illinois is currently governed by the Compensation Review Act. In 1990, a Compensation Review Board that has since been abolished recommended that legislative salaries be subject to annual cost of living adjustments, or COLAs. The General Assembly approved that recommendation and it remained in effect when the board was abolished.

In 2009, in the wake of a severe recession, lawmakers passed a bill canceling those COLAs for the upcoming fiscal year, and they repeated that policy each year until 2019.

The lawsuit sought to order Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza to pay Clayborne $104,412.93 and Noland $71,507.43.

In July 2019, Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ruled in their favor, saying the salary freezes were unconstitutional, and a subsequent judge, Allen P. Walker, issued an order in April 2021 for Mendoza to make the payments. But Mendoza appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments, Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s office, representing Mendoza, did not challenge the finding that the legislative acts were unconstitutional, but argued that the former senators had effectively waived their right to any relief by voting in favor of the pay reduction bills.

It also argued that the former lawmakers waited an unreasonable length of time before filing their claims and that their claims should be barred by the statute of limitations, which is generally five years.

In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed with those arguments and did not rule on the constitutionality argument.

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TREASURER'S RACE: In Illinois, the role of state treasurer is that of chief investment officer.

Treasurer Michael Frerichs has held that position for two full terms, winning by less than 10,000 votes in 2014 before cruising to an 18 percentage-point victory in 2018.

He boasts that Illinois has topped $1.2 billion in interest gains on its investments since he took office, making him just the second treasurer since Republican Judy Baar Topinka, who held that post from 1995 through 2007, to reach that threshold.

“We've raised more than a billion dollars for the state of Illinois,” he said in a podcast interview with Capitol News Illinois. “A billion dollars that didn't have to be raised in taxes or a billion dollars in cuts that didn't have to be made to things like our schools, our roads and bridges.”

He said the treasurer’s office invests about $26 billion in state funds, about $15 billion in pooled municipal assets and administers a college savings program through which Illinoisans have saved almost $17 billion, among other tasks.

His opponent is state Rep. Tom Demmer, a Republican from Dixon who has served in the General Assembly since 2013 and is currently House Deputy Minority Leader. He’s the House Republicans’ point person on budget issues.

Demmer said his focus is on adding a Republican check on Democratic power among the state’s constitutional officers – those include governor, comptroller, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer – all of which are currently held by Democrats, although all will be up for vote in November.

“When you have one party in control of really every aspect of government, sometimes folks in the office, they don't have an incentive to speak up,” Demmer said in an interview with Capitol News Illinois. “They don't want to rock the boat. They don't want to try to hold somebody else accountable, because they're in the same party, and they don't want to ruffle any feathers. That's not how our government is set up to work.”

Each candidate was interviewed for the Capitol News Illinois’ Capitol Cast podcast to share their plans for the office. The full article and podcast interviews can be found here.

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STERIGENICS VERDICT: A Cook County jury this week awarded 70-year-old Sue Kamuda with a $363 million verdict after she sued medical supply sterilization company Sterigenics, alleging the company exposed her and surrounding residents to a known carcinogen that led to her breast cancer diagnosis.

Sterigenics used the cancer-causing chemical ethylene oxide to sterilize medical supplies at its facility in Willowbrook for decades. Kamuda sued the company as well as its corporate parent and a corporate predecessor, and hers was the first of more than 760 lawsuits against the company to reach a verdict.

In August 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, reported in a letter there was an “elevated cancer risk” for anyone who lives near or works in the facility.

The plant was shuttered by the Illinois EPA in 2019 before ultimately shutting down permanently amid public pressure. It had been in operation since 1985.

State Sen. John Curran, a Downers Grove Republican, was one of the first lawmakers to raise alarms about Sterigenics. He called the verdict “astounding” and said it “puts facilities that deal with potentially harmful chemicals on notice.”

“What we suspected all along, and what has now been found by a jury, is that Sterigenics was a bad actor that turned a blind eye to the fact that they were slowly poisoning the residents who lived in the vicinity of their facility,” Curran said in a statement.

In response to the elevated cancer risk surrounding the facility, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation strictly limiting allowable ethylene oxide emissions and mandating shutdowns for companies that fail annual emissions tests.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported the company argued that the verdict didn’t reflect the evidence presented in court.

“We will continue to vigorously defend against allegations about our ethylene oxide operations and emissions,” a Sterigenics spokesperson told the newspaper.

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FAIR RECORD: The 2022 Illinois State Fair set an all-time attendance record with more than 636,700 visitors.

Weekend attendance increased by 95,000 from one year ago. Attendance topped 2021 overall by more than 160,000 and 2019 by more than 127,000. There was no fair in 2020 for the first time since World War II due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2022 fair brought in $6.4 million in estimated revenue, which could be amended upward as more vendors report earnings, according to a news release. As it stands, it’s just off a record of $6.5 million set in 2019.

Grandstand events brought in $2.3 million in revenue, up from the previous record of $2.2 million. There were 48,104 grandstand tickets sold, putting this year’s events fourth out of the past five in ticket sales.

The news release noted $58.1 million in construction at the fairgrounds will pick back up with the fair concluded. The renovations are funded by the state’s Rebuild Illinois capital infrastructure program, including $8.6 million in work on the multipurpose arena, which was closed this year due to the renovations.

The 122-year-old coliseum at the fairgrounds saw renovations for its structural integrity in 2019, while Phase 2 construction at the facility will include $16.3 million in electrical and plumbing work, as well as the addition of an elevator and an HVAC system among other construction.

Department of Agriculture Director Jerry Costello said before the fair the HVAC system will allow for year-round use of the coliseum, which could mean an expansion of dog shows or other events. In 2025, the fairgrounds will host the World Clydesdale Show.

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VP VISIT: Vice President Kamala Harris came to Chicago Friday, Sept. 16, to rally voters who support abortion rights and urge them to turn out in the upcoming midterm elections.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion on reproductive rights at the University of Illinois Chicago, Harris said the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade has put abortion rights at the forefront in races up and down the ballot.

Harris was joined at the event by Gov. JB Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Attorney General Kwame Raoul, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and a number of other abortion rights supporters. They were scheduled to hold a political rally on the UIC campus later in the day.

Her appearance came just 53 days before the Nov. 8 election when control of the U.S. House and Senate will be up for grabs and when all state-level elected offices in Illinois will be on the ballot as well.

Historically, the president’s party loses congressional seats in a midterm election. Democrats currently hold a slim, nine-vote majority in the U.S. House while the U.S. Senate is evenly divided, giving Harris the tie-breaking vote on many issues.

But Democrats are hopeful that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the decision that overturned Roe v. Wade, will energize Democratic, independent, and even some Republican voters and draw attention away from issues like rising inflation, crime and high gasoline prices.

Illinois Republicans, however, were quick to respond.

"Instead of ducking and deflecting, the Vice President needs to answer questions regarding the Biden Administration's role in fueling the inflation crisis, and where she stands on Governor Pritzker and Mayor Lightfoot's failure to keep our communities safe," the Illinois Republican Party said in a statement released Friday morning.

Since the Dobbs decision, strict abortion restrictions have taken effect in many states, including all those that surround Illinois. That has made Illinois a destination for women seeking abortion who live in states where the procedure is now virtually banned or tightly regulated.

In 2019, however, Pritzker signed into law the Reproductive Health Act which, among other things, declares that access to abortion and other reproductive health care services is a “fundamental right” under Illinois law.

Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government that is distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Capitol News Illinois