Jim Dey: Faceoff available at website

Jim Dey: Faceoff available at website

It wasn't exactly the Battle of the Titans on Monday when Republican congressional candidates Rodney Davis and Erika Harold met to discuss the issues, but it was their first live joint appearance of the long Republican Party primary campaign.

Incumbent U.S. Rep. Davis, lawyer and former Miss America Harold and Dr. Michael Firsching, a veterinarian, appeared at an odd hour in a low-profile location, a Bloomington-Normal FM radio station.

The time and place was consistent with Davis' effort to minimize direct faceoffs with his two opponents, particularly Harold. He recently skipped a local congressional debate at which all five of his opponents (the two Republicans and Democrats Ann Callis, George Gollin and David Green) appeared.

But while the radio debate was the first live appearance for all three Republicans, it was not their first debate.

The trio recently made an appearance before members of The Chicago Tribune editorial board, which taped the one-hour 13-minute exchange and posted it on the newspaper's website (http://www.chicagotribune.com/videogallery/79364717/#pl-79364687). The GOP gubernatorial candidates' debate comes first, but readers can click on the right arrow to move to the 13th District faceoff.

The Tribune subsequently endorsed Harold in the March 18 Republican primary. The Tribune also endorsed Democratic University of Illinois physics Professor George Gollin in the Democratic Party primary.

The race in the 13th Congressional District is expected to be close in November. In 2012, Davis narrowly defeated Democrat David Gill. He became the GOP candidate after incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson decided not to seek re-election and vacated his ballot spot after winning the primary.

Davis was subsequently slated by GOP party chairmen to take Johnson's ballot spot in the sprawling district, which runs from Urbana to the Missouri border. He narrowly defeated Harold in the vote by party chairmen. Although she supported Davis in the 2012 election, Harold announced last summer that she would challenge him for her party's nomination in 2014 so that Republican voters, rather than party chairmen, could choose their party's nominee.

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Local lawyer Brian Sides is sitting on a two-month suspension of his law license. But state lawyers will argue Friday before a state hearing panel that he should be suspended for at least one year and until further order of the court.

Sides got in trouble for his bizarre and irrational behavior in front of a series of Champaign County judges several years ago, apparently believing himself to be a victim of some sort of judicial conspiracy. He calls Associate Judge John Kennedy a "predator" and a "scourge on his profession." He cast similar insults at Judges Jeffrey Ford and Charles Leonhard.

As a result, the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission filed charges against Sides seeking to strip him of his license to practice law.

Sides got himself in trouble when he represented himself in a lawsuit alleging he had failed to pay a bill. Sides got himself in further trouble before the ARDC when he initially sought to represent himself in that dispute. At one point, he argued that the ARDC had no jurisdiction over him, when, in fact, the ARDC has jurisdiction over the licenses of all lawyers.

Ultimately, however, Sides' hired a lawyer, Springfield's William Moran, who persuaded a three-member hearing board that his client got a little too excited when representing himself and would never represent himself again.

The hearing panel, apparently placated, order a 5-month suspension, but suspended three months of it. It also ordered Sides to take a course on professionalism and to work under the supervision of a licensed lawyer.

But the ARDC still wants Sides' license, and it's taking its appeal Friday to the ARDC's three-member review board. The review board is expected to issue its decision within 30 to 90 days. The seven-member Illinois Supreme Court, which has the authority to modify or tough the penalty, must sign off on the review board's recommendation.

Sides practices law locally with his wife, Christina Manuel.

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"I didn't do anything wrong."

So said Jeri Wright, the daughter of President Obama's controversial minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

But that's not what members of a Springfield jury thought after hearing evidence last week in connection with a massive state grant scandal. After deliberating for roughly two hours, jurors found Wright guilty of all charges — lying to a federal agent, perjury before a grand jury, wire fraud, money laundering and bank fraud.

Wright faces a sentence ranging from 21 to 33 months in federal prison when she is sentenced July 7 by U.S. Judge Sue Myerscough.

With her conviction, Wright becomes the latest casualty of a long-running federal investigation into the theft of roughly $13 million in taxpayers' money through phony state grants.

Wright was a relative small fry in the fraud perpetrated by Regina Evans, a former Chicago police officer and police chief of Country Club Hills. Both Evans and her husband, Ronald, have pleaded guilty in connection with a $1.25 million grant they solicited to finance job training and educational programs for the unemployed.

All told, 132 defendants have been charged in connection with similar grant fraud schemes, including a former state legislator and the one-time chief of staff to the head of the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Wright was represented by John Taylor, a lawyer affiliated with the federal public defender's office in Urbana. She was originally scheduled to go to trial earlier this year, but Wright's original lawyer, George Jackson of Chicago, withdrew from the case at the last minute. Judge Myerscough then appointed Taylor.

Wright, who has no criminal history, remains free on bond pending sentencing. Her mother attended the trial, but her father did not.

Much of the evidence in the grant fraud cases has focused on the poor job state bureaucrats from the departments of Public Health and Commerce and Economic Opportunity did in handing out and then overseeing the expenditure of tax dollars.

But was it sloppy by accident or on purpose? Evidence showed that the state gave Evans a check for the entire grant amount — $1.25 million — up front rather than do so in smaller increments while checking on how it was spent. The Evans spent the money on personal items while Wright received a relatively small sum — roughly $10,000 — for helping Regina Evans, a longtime personal friend, launder it through financial institutions.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 3512-5369.

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