The Week in Review – September 18

ETHICS

U.S Attorney’s Office Sends Official Response to Parameters for Special Investigating Committee.  The U.S. Attorney for the Northern District has responded to both letters from Rep. Demmer and Rep. Welch about the parameters of the Special Investigating Committee. Ron Safer, special counsel for the petitioner Leader Jim Durkin, released the following statement:

“The US Attorney’s Office has given the Special Investigating Committee the green light to pursue all avenues of the investigation, including testimony and documents, that were articulated in the petition. We are grateful that US Attorney John Lausch told the Committee that his office recognizes the SIC’s ‘separate and independent obligation to conduct its inquiry.’ We look forward to the Committee convening promptly to do this important work.”

Click here to read Rep. Demmer’s letter. Click here to read the response from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In response to the receipt of the letter, State Representative Grant Wehrli, who sits on the Special Investigating Committee, issued this statement:

“It is apparent that Representative Welch was incorrect in his assessment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office position with regard to our ability to call and question witnesses. Rep. Welch has accused Republicans of playing politics, when all Republicans want to do is find the truth in the matter of the House Speaker’s knowledge or involvement with the items disclosed in the deferred prosecution agreement between Commonwealth Edison and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. With this clarity now provided, the Special Investigating Committee should reconvene without delay to continue our important work.”

In its first meeting on September 10, the Committee entered six exhibits into the record; the petition which created the Special Investigating Committee, the Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA), the federal subpoena issued to Madigan’s office, formal charges, and the Committee’s request to seek witnesses to voluntarily testify and provide factual information from individuals and entities to help the Investigating Committee.

The Special Investigating Committee is supposed to determine whether the Speaker has acted in a manner unbecoming of a Representative or has committed a breach of public trust. The Committee does not require the proof of a crime or proving each element of every crime in order to prove conduct unbecoming.

The members of the Committee are tasked with conducting a thorough investigation of the charges, and if reasonable grounds are found to exist, send the charges and relevant information to a Select Committee on Discipline.

If the Select Committee on Discipline makes a determination that discipline should occur, it would take 71 votes to reprimand or censure Speaker Madigan, and 79 votes to expel Speaker Madigan from the House of Representatives.

COVID-19

Illinois COVID-19 test count nears 5.0 million completed tests.  As of Thursday, September 17, more than 4.92 million reported COVID-19 tests had been performed in Illinois.   

As has been pointed out by numerous critics, the number of tests is not, by itself, a complete indicator of the coronavirus situation in Illinois.  A significant number of people, in the U.S. and around the world, have become ill from COVID-19 and have recovered without getting tested at all.  At the same time, another significant group of people – and this includes people in front-line positions such as health care workers and police officers – have positions that require them to be tested repeatedly even if they have not yet come down with the illness.

The 4.92 million tests performed as of September 17 had generated 268,207 confirmed cases of COVID-19 coronavirus.  This cumulative “positivity count” is more than 6.4%.  Public health experts use positivity counts as one metric to determine the speed with which the virus is allegedly spreading and the need for new mitigation measures of public control.  At the same time, however, any measuring stick that depends on overall COVID-19 cases and tests will be flawed.  In addition to the factors noted above, each group of tests generates false negatives and false positives. 

$220 million in “second-round” Business Interruption Grants released.  The Business Interruption Grant (BIG) program is a $636 million program developed by the Governor and the Illinois General Assembly to provide economic relief for small businesses hit hardest by COVID-19.  BIG leverages federal funding provided by the CARES Act to help offset COVID-19 related losses for Illinois small businesses.  Funding may be used to help businesses with working capital expenses, including payroll costs; rent; utilities; and other operational costs as defined in the eligible cost list found below.  

Money from the non-child-care portion of the BIG program was released this week.  Approximately $60 million was earmarked for distressed indoor businesses, $70 million for disproportionately impacted geographic areas (DIAs), and $100 million for Downstate communities.  A bipartisan, bicameral General Assembly panel, the Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission (RICC), will talk to DCEO about these grant releases on Monday, September 21.

JOBS

Statewide unemployment drops to 11 percent, payrolls increase in August.  The Illinois unemployment rate dropped in August 2020.  The decline of 0.5% reduced the widely followed economic number from 11.5% (July) to 11.0% (August).  Unemployment was down and jobs were up; Illinois nonfarm payrolls added 66,000 “new” jobs in August.  In many cases, these were not “new” jobs, but jobs that had disappeared during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Even after these new jobs had been added to the Illinois economic picture, unemployment was still marking double-digit figures.  The number of unemployed Illinoisans was 695,000, almost triple the jobless count from August 2019.  Relative to the prior year, 428,700 nonfarm payroll jobs has disappeared.  Losses were especially heavy in leisure and hospitality; this hard-pressed sector, which includes hotels, short-term rental housing, restaurants, eateries, bars, and taverns, has lost 143,700 jobs. 

While more than two-thirds of the unemployed persons listed in this count are persons who, as of September 2020, were eligible for extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits and were collecting these benefits, time limits on UI benefits mean that in future weeks a number of them will begin to exhaust their eligibility time periods.  Current federal law grants Illinois UI beneficiaries an additional 20 weeks of benefits as they search for new employment, but when this period of time expires, no more benefits can be paid out to each former worker.

Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission members call for more public input on failure of IDES unemployment system.  State Representatives Tom Bennett, Dan Caulkins and Mike Murphy are calling for public hearings and more public input regarding the multiple failures of the Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) during the pandemic.

“My office received hundreds of calls and e-mails from applicants who either could not get a resolution to their application for unemployment benefits or who had concerns about identity theft after the IDES data breach earlier this year,” Rep. Bennett said. “Some individuals waited for many weeks or even months to get answers from IDES while mortgages, food and utilities still had to be paid. This is unacceptable and it calls for greater public accountability. I applaud Acting Director Richards for her efforts, but much more needs to be done. People are hurting.”

Bennett, Caulkins and Murphy are the three House Republican members of the Restore Illinois Collaborative Commission, a body of legislators created this spring to consult on the State’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission has been holding meetings via Zoom, but has not held public hearings. The three legislators argue that the events of the spring and summer justify an open public hearing into the failures at IDES and what can be done to improve the situation.

“I appreciate Acting IDES Director Richards’ participation in the Restore Illinois Commission meeting,” Rep. Murphy said. “IDES faces significant challenges at this moment and the people of Illinois deserve to hear what is being done to improve the unemployment system in Illinois for the hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans that are still out of work. I believe a subject matter hearing on IDES is the best way to get our unanswered questions answered and allow the people of Illinois the opportunity to hear directly from IDES about the ongoing issues they continue to face.”

“During today’s meeting with the Director of IDES, I asked about the process of redetermination of benefits,” Rep. Caulkins said. “There are over 500 self-employed people in my district who, after waiting for months to finally get their unemployment benefits, are now receiving notices of over-payments. They responded to the questions asked by IDES during the application process. The amount of the benefits was determined by IDES and their account credited in that amount. Now, IDES is telling them that they have been overpaid and in most cases, they owe substantial amounts back. My question to the Director was ‘Since no fraud is alleged and IDES did the determination, why are these self-employed people being penalized? Doesn’t IDES have some liability for these overpayments?’”

Unemployment spiked in Illinois during the pandemic as businesses were shut down and economic activity slowed. IDES reported a surge in call volume far beyond its call center agents’ capacity to respond. More than two million Illinoisans applied for benefits during the pandemic. The problem was compounded by the discovery of a late-May data breach and a series of fraudulent applications.

STATE GOVERNMENT

Two former State employees arrested in A.J. Freund case.  The arrests followed the discovery of the 5-year-old boy’s remains on April 2019.  As employees of the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), Andrew Polovin and Carlos Acosta allegedly failed to fulfill their responsibilities as persons with overall responsibility for the welfare of the doomed child.  These alleged acts led the two men to each be charged with felony endangerment of the life of a child and with a separate count of felony reckless conduct.

A.J. Freund and his family had been “flagged” in 2015 as a family that needed to be closely watched.  Over a nine-month period in from June 2015 until March 2016, DCFS personnel visited Freund’s house 17 times to check on his welfare.  Despite numerous problems, no effective action took place.  In December 2018, A.J. Freund confided to a medical professional that he had been physically abused by a parent.  The professional, a mandated reporter of child abuse, reported the allegation to DCFS, but the Department’s personnel once again took no action.  After A.J. Freund was tragically found dead in April 2019, many of the problems in the Freund house have become public knowledge.  Freund’s parents were arrested for the boy’s murder, and the DCFS Inspector General has begun an inquiry into the actions taken by the Department in this case.  Information from several different sources was combined to create the investigation that concluded in this week’s arrest.

Representative Steve Reick is a leading voice in the call for major changes at DCFS.  Reick has worked with his colleagues, and with whistle-blowers within the Department, to take a serious look at the culture of DCFS and the workload of its full-time staff.  “Our child welfare system is broken and cannot be fixed without systemic change,” Reick said.  One serious problem with DCFS’s current paradigm is the current incentive for caseworkers to trust parents and guardians when these caregivers claim to be taking action to remediate their conduct and fix their troubled families.  All too often, these promises are made casually and then not kept, and there is then no DCFS follow-up action to audit compliance.

Even if a caseworker with case responsibility over a threatened child has seen a flagged parent or guardian make many such promises before, and has seen all of these promises broken, she or he will face exhausting paperwork burdens before additional steps can be taken to protect the threatened child.  Endless procedural steps, many of them mandated by faraway judges and long-ago consent decrees, surround every stage of the process that must be taken to protect a threatened child.   Representative Reick believes that it is pointless to appropriate more money to DCFS until the child-welfare system is reformed to remove unnecessary burdens and end flawed caseworker incentives.  

TRANSPORTATION

Twelve-month countdown to REAL-ID drivers’ license compliance deadline approaches.  Starting on October 1, 2021, federal government security will require that everyone present a REAL-ID-compliant drivers’ license or other form of compliant personal identification when entering a space under their control.  This includes airport departure gates, federal buildings, military bases, and nuclear power plants.  Starting in October 2021, security guards will require fliers to comply with this mandate in order to enter an airport boarding gate and get aboard an airline flight.

Illinois is one of the 50 states that have begun to issue REAL-ID-compliant drivers’ licenses and personal identification cards.  However, because of the changeover from noncompliant to compliant drivers’ licenses, many Illinois drivers continue to have older licenses in their possession and have not yet replaced them with new ones.  About 105 million REAL-ID-compliant state identification cards have been issued nationwide. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security assures the holders of valid U.S. passports that if they do not yet have a REAL-ID-compliant identification card, they can use their passports, which will be fully valid for this purpose.   

Most of the Driver Services offices of the Illinois Secretary of State have reopened under COVID-19 pandemic conditions.  The Office urges applicants to set aside substantial blocks of time for their visits.  For those with expiring, non-REAL-ID-compliant ID cards who need to continue social isolation, the expiring cards have been granted special status and will continue to be valid until November 1, 2020.  Although these Illinois drivers’ licenses and other cards will temporarily continue to be valid for purposes of driving and in-state identification, they will not be valid for REAL-ID purposes, and holders of these older forms of identification will need to continue to be aware of the impending changeover that will take place next year at airports and other key facilities.        

WEEK IN REVIEW

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