Jim Dey: Party favors

Jim Dey: Party favors

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On Jan. 2, Urbana's Aaron Ammons submitted a request for a gubernatorial pardon to the Illinois Prisoner Review Board.

The 88-page application made it clear that he needed a pardon, and he needed it fast.

"Interestingly, at this very moment, the mayor of the City of Urbana is poised to appoint me to the Urbana City Council to fill a vacancy that will occur in the middle of January 2015. If I were to receive a pardon from the Honorable Governor Pat Quinn, I would be eligible to serve the people of Urbana Ward 3 as their next councilman," he said.

But there was a problem with Ammons' application that was quickly discovered — it lacked any sign that Ammons had notified local Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz or the circuit court of his request, as required by law.

Ammons was instructed by letter to correct those omissions and inform the board when he had done so. (Copies of the pardon application filed at the county courthouse were stamped Jan. 8, four days before the pardon was granted.)

Because the application was incomplete, prisoner board general counsel Kenneth Tupy said employees in his office didn't bother to enter the application on its docket.

The board never heard from Ammons again, but Tupy said that his office did hear from Quinn about 10 days later.

"We got word from the governor's office that (Quinn) had granted (Ammons) a pardon," Tupy said.

On Thursday, Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing recommended Ammons for appointment to fill the council vacancy created when his wife, Carol, resigned her seat after being elected as a Democratic member of the Illinois House of Representatives for the 103rd District, which includes most of Champaign-Urbana.

In securing a pardon in just 10 days, Ammons jumped the line filled by roughly 1,800 other applicants who are going through the traditional statutorily required review process. Even as Ammons last week waited — pardon in hand — for Prussing's appointment, the prisoner review board was holding evidentiary hearings on pardon requests that will be followed by recommendations to the governor from the board. As per its custom, the board will hold additional hearings in April, July and October.

The pardon process is elaborate by design, intended to allow all the parties to the case a voice in the outcome.

Tupy said that the goal is to allow the prisoner review board to "hear everything before it makes a recommendation to go to the governor."

Some pardon applicants are represented by lawyers, making what is almost always a time-consuming process potentially expensive. Months, even years, can pass before applicants hear any news after the hearing is complete.

Given those traditional bureaucratic machinations, the question in the Aaron Ammons case is, since the Prisoner Review Board was bypassed, how did he manage to obtain in 10 days what can take others several years?

The answer is rooted in the two sets of rules that apply in Illinois: Regular folks get in line; those with clout get it done.

Prussing, a fellow Democrat, longtime acquaintance and supporter of Quinn, said she contacted Quinn on Ammons' behalf and asked for the pardon. Quinn, aware that Ammons' wife is a new Illinois House member, said yes.

What specifically happened in the governor's office, other than granting the pardon, is not clear. Quinn's Jan. 12 pardon was among his last official acts. His term ended at noon, when Bruce Rauner was sworn in as the new governor.

The transition has confused the search for records on the pardon.

Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said employees in the executive legal office have "been digging on this" in a fruitless search for documentation.

"If there was a file, Quinn's staff took it. The Prisoner Review Board is trying to get it back," he said.

Quinn, embittered by his re-election defeat, has been largely incommunicado since he departed the governor's office.

It's not uncommon for those seeking a pardon to request a letter of recommendation from legislators. State Sen. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, said he recently wrote a letter — his first ever recommending a pardon — for one of his constituents who, like Ammons, has a criminal conviction dating back years. The Prisoner Review Board recently held a hearing in that case.

But Rose said he was unaware of the Ammons pardon until it made the news, acknowledging he was stunned at the speed with which it moved.

Former state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, the Urbana Democrat whom Carol Ammons succeeded, said she played no role in Aaron Ammons' pardon and was unaware the issue was pending. Former state Sen. Michael Frerichs, a Democrat who was elected state treasurer in November, also said that he had no knowledge of the pardon until it was granted.

Neither Ammons responded to inquiries regarding this story. But Aaron Ammons made it clear in a Saturday News-Gazette story on his impending council appointment that Prussing was instrumental in securing the pardon for him.

This is not the first time Quinn has stepped forward to help the Ammonses. He visited Champaign-Urbana last summer to attend a fundraiser for the newly sworn in state representative.

This also is not the first time that Champaign-Urbana's newest power couple has played fast and loose with the rules.

The line-jumping by Aaron Ammons is similar to the corner-cutting in which his wife has engaged in her political career.

She was challenged before the March 2014 Democratic primary for falsely claiming to have a college degree. It turned out the degree was from an overseas diploma mill. Carol Ammons also made news years ago when she for ran for, and was elected to, the Urbana school board even though she was not a legal resident of the school district. The board ultimately denied her a seat.

Now Aaron Ammons has gained a personal benefit — the pardon — as a consequence of his political associations.

Eric Jakobsson, husband of former state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson and one of Aaron Ammons' future colleagues on the city council, expressed disappointment over the issue. When he spoke to The News-Gazette on Friday, Jakobsson said he had no first-hand knowledge of what transpired but said "there is no doubt the Ammonses were able to short-circuit the process."

He said the same rules should apply to everyone and that he was disturbed that Aaron Ammons would be a party to a process that demonstrates how insiders get special treatment.

"That's not appropriate," he said.

"That's not to say Aaron isn't worthy of a pardon," Jakobsson said, adding that he expects "Aaron will be fine on the council."

Referring to his wife's long tenure in the Illinois House, Jakobsson said she assisted constituents when she could but never sought to obtain favored treatment.

"She never asked for special favors, for procedures that were supposed to apply to everybody to be circumvented," he said.

Jakobsson said he is hopeful "there will be no more corner-cutting in the future."

Pardons like the one Ammons received are extremely rare, but not unprecedented.

The Prisoner Review Board's Tupy recalled former Gov. George Ryan once granted "clemency to several death-row inmates who had never sought clemency." He said prosecutors sought to challenge the validity of granting unrequested clemency but that the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the governor's pardon power is absolute and not subject to legal challenge.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 351-5369.

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A Very Busy Mom wrote on January 25, 2015 at 1:01 pm

This man was given special treatment - totally unfair.  How about the other 1800 who did it the correct  way.      If you want to get a head part of getting ahead is following the rules.

This makes me suspect of Carol and Aaron.  For all the good that they have done - this makes it look like they are part of the corrupt government that Illinois is used to.

kpruitt1164@aol.com wrote on January 26, 2015 at 12:01 am

I believe that Mr. Ammons and his wife are committed to serving their community and represent their community.  No one is trying to take away the accomplishments.

However, in an environment of corrupt politics in Illinois, this appears to be business as usual. I am surprised that the City of Urbana would be part of this. 

The speed of this entire process clearly shows the disparity between "those with clout and regular folks."

For someone who co-founded the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice in 2003, where is the justice for the other 1800 pardon applicants that have been waiting for over a year,  and had to possibly hire an attorney for this process?

After EVERYTHNG Mr. Ammons has accomplished, and what he stands for, and teaches;  I was expecting ... well... more than this.

rsp wrote on January 26, 2015 at 8:01 am

I hate to break it to Eric Jacobsson but when you go to your elected official to ask for help you are asking for special treatment because the system is broken. People don't have time or money to wait years to get something done. That just invites corruption.

Local Yocal wrote on January 26, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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It's strange people can be certain and accuse the Ammons' of having "leftist radical views based in social theory," but not know their accomplishments in the community despite the fact people voted for Carol Ammons with the largest percentage point win of any new legislator. Despite the fact that Erik Jakobsson, Naomi Jakobsson, and Laurel Prussing fought to beat Carol Ammons in the primary and now support her and her husband as council member.

It's wrong for Gov.Quinn's pen to only move for pardons at the last minute and only when a fellow democrat tugs at his elbow, when there should be a committee working on these pardons throughout the years he was governor and work through this 1,800 backlog. It's not the fault of the Ammons' they got consideration after proving they've become more popular than their opponents. I guess to get a pardon, you must first beat the politicians in an election race and then you'll be heard.