Week in Review: Tornados, organized theft rings, Thompson Center & more


A least four tornados hit Illinois; fatalities at Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville. The Amazon distribution center in Edwardsville is a significant logistical center for Amazon to handle packages that go in and out of St. Louis International Airport. Like the other consumer-goods logistical centers of the United States, it had been operating at full or nearly-full capacity for the Christmas holiday season.
On the evening of Friday, December 10, a major storm generated tornado and air/ground burst incidents throughout many locations in Southern Illinois, including Edwardsville. The walls and ceiling of the Amazon warehouse buckled, and the building partially collapsed.

Heroic actions by workers and first responders enabled many of the people inside the collapsing building to get to temporary safe locations, and then to places of emergency medical care and treatment. However, six Edwardsville workers were killed when the tornado hit the warehouse. The workplace tragedy was the focal point of what are now believed to have been at least six separate tornado strikes throughout Southern Illinois on the night of December 10-11. Gov. Pritzker has issued a disaster proclamation for storm damage caused by the incidents. The adjacent states of Missouri and Kentucky were also destructively affected by the massive storm.

Leader Durkin Targets Organized Retail Theft. As “smash-and-grab” robberies continue to terrorize consumers and retailers, House Republican Leader Jim Durkin has filed legislation targeting the organized theft rings behind these headline-grabbing crimes.

“Smash-and-grab retail theft has become disturbingly commonplace and these criminals are only becoming more brazen,” said Durkin. “These crimes have many victims, from the people who own and operate these stores, to their employees and customers. We cannot let this stand. These criminals are sophisticated and organized like the street gangs that terrorize our communities and must be treated the same.”

Retailers, from small mom and pop stores to large companies, lost between $3.7 and $4 billion worth of merchandise to retail theft in Illinois alone last year, according to a recent report from the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Additionally, billions in stolen goods means the State loses out on millions in sales tax revenue. These thieves are not reselling on street corners or out of car trunks, but through anonymous online marketplaces.

Durkin’s legislation, House Bill 4275, creates the crime of organized retail theft, a felony punishable by up to 15 years in jail if the value of the stolen goods is more than the state’s current felony threshold of $300.

Under Durkin’s proposal, a person commits organized retail theft when they:
  • Work with one or more people to steal merchandise with the intent of selling or returning the merchandise for profit. 
  • Work with two or more people to receive, purchase or possess merchandise they believe to be stolen.
  • Act as an agent of another individual or group of individuals to steal merchandise from one or more merchant’s premises as part of an organized plan to commit theft.
  • Recruit, coordinate, organize, supervise, direct, manage or finance another person to undertake any of these actions. 
Durkin’s legislation also allows for organized retail theft to be charged in one of several locations. Charges can be brought either where the theft took place, where the merchandise was recovered, or where stolen merchandise was resold. For instance, if a store on Michigan Avenue was robbed, but the organized crime ring attempted to sell the stolen goods in DuPage County, the crime could be charged in Cook or DuPage County.

“State’s Attorney Foxx and Governor Pritzker continue to coddle criminals and disregard the victims of their crimes. It is time we reset our criminal justice system and hold those who disregard our laws accountable. Our citizens and our merchants are desperate for action,” said Durkin.

Holiday shopping affected by crime wave. As the twin scourges of COVID-19 and urban crime continue to negatively impact life in greater Chicago, traditional Christmas shopping activities have been strongly affected for the worse. The downturn in customer counts has had a severe impact on retail transactions on North Michigan Avenue and other locations. If retailers do not get the cash flow to maintain their traditional staffing levels, Illinois’ troubled employment picture will be affected.

Chicago police and news media are fully aware of the current urban crime spree, and incidents of property crime and violence are being widely covered in the press. However, existing Illinois laws do not appear to be sufficient to deter criminal activities at this time. Cellphones and social media have given predatory criminals a powerful new weapon to mobilize themselves in groups and to seek out points of weakness in urban retail settings.

Crushing Illinois unemployment insurance debt leads to plea for help. Already more than $4 billion, the money borrowed by the Illinois Unemployment Insurance (UI) Trust Fund to pay unemployment benefits is projected to approach $5 billion in calendar year 2022. The lender, the U.S. Department of Labor, expected to have the money paid back plus interest. Interest, which is due annually every September 30, is accruing on the debt. Almost $20 million has accrued, and the required payment could be more than $100 million by September 30, 2022. By federal and State law, interest payments on federal UI loans must be paid from general revenue.

Eight states, including Illinois, have now sent a letter to Washington asking for a waiver from the interest-payment requirement. States with substantial UI deficits that have signed the letter include Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Most of the states in this category are slow-growth states in the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. Typical northeastern urban states already have high labor costs and unemployment-insurance tax rates.

Delta and Omicron variants both cutting swathes through vulnerable Illinois populations. The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reported this week that all 102 of Illinois counties are areas of “high transmission” of coronavirus, with the new Delta and Omicron variants ensuring that many of the Illinois patients tested are coming back positive for the potentially deadly illness. As of Thursday, December 16, health care providers had reported 23,792 variant cases of COVID-19 to State officials in Illinois.

Illinois public health guidance continues to assure local citizens and residents that fully vaccinated people can participate in many of the activities that they did before the pandemic. This includes a recommendation that fully vaccinated people wear a mask in public indoor settings, including school buildings. There is no talk at this time about long-terms closings of in-person educational activities or other places of public gathering.

Public health experts continue to report that by getting vaccinated, Illinois residents can sharply reduce their risks of becoming seriously ill or being hospitalized for COVID-19. Vaccination clinics are active all over Illinois. With approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination to all persons ages 5 and up, clinics are providing vaccinations to almost all Illinoisans. With the new Omicron variant in mind, previously vaccinated Illinoisans are urged to get booster shots.

Legislative Inspector General position remains unfilled. The Legislative Inspector General (LIG) is the senior person in charge of overseeing the rights of, and ethics complaints against, the elected officials and personnel of the Illinois General Assembly. While a low-profile position in terms of public awareness, the job is extremely important; complaints against former Speaker Michael Madigan and his top staff, relating to their conduct and ethics, played a key role in forcing the four-decade Speaker of the Illinois House out of office last January. One of Madigan’s former Chiefs of Staff, Tim Mapes, is currently under indictment for alleged federal offenses.

With these facts familiar to insiders, the office of the Legislative Inspector General is a key position in Springfield, the State Capitol. The current LIG Carol Pope had previously stated her determination to step down prior to year’s end, citing lack of support from top members of the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. When she offered her resignation in July 2021, Pope gave the General Assembly and its leadership five months’ notice to find a successor. While interviews of potential candidates have taken place, no substantive action has followed. Representative Avery Bourne, a House Republican member of the Legislative Ethics Commission, has expressed her frustration with the delay.

Although the Legislative Ethics Commission is the body that nominally takes the lead in selecting a new Inspector General, in practice nobody can be hired until the Democrats’ legislative leadership sign off on the new hire, and they have not done so. Due to the lack of action on naming a replacement, LIG Pope has indicated that she will stay on the job until early January.

Unemployment rate down slightly in November. The Illinois Department of Employment Security (IDES) reported this week on the preliminary statewide unemployment rate for November 2021 was 5.7%, down 0.3% from the 6.0% reported for October 2021. Nonfarm Illinois payroll employment was up by 19,500 jobs, reflecting strong trends in leisure and hospitality (up 8,200 jobs), trade, transportation and utilities (up 8,200 jobs), and construction (up 3,800 jobs). On the other hand, the typically high-wage jobs in the Professionals and Business Services super-sector declined by 5,500 jobs, signaling potential continued economic challenges in Illinois.

Pending sale of James R. Thompson Center moves forward. The General Assembly has pushed over a multi-year period for the State of Illinois to develop a disposition plan for the James R. Thompson Center. The physically troubled 16-story-tall glass building, located in Chicago’s Loop is sometimes called an “architectural showplace.” Many of the State employees who work there call it a neglected nightmare that freezes in winter, broils in summer, and is constantly springing rain leaks. The Thompson Center was built to house 2,800 State of Illinois workers and their office infrastructure.

Earlier in 2021, the State of Illinois advertised the availability of the Thompson Center, and one full square block of Chicago Loop real estate underneath it, for potential sale and put it out for bids. Only two bids were received from potential buyers. This week, JRTC Holdings was identified as a potential winning bidder. The announcement opens the door for negotiations to continue with the goal of finalizing the purchase of the State building and property for $70 million. The troubled building would then undergo major rebuilding and construction work, of the type often loosely called a “gut rehab.”

As a condition of bidding for the building, JRTC Holdings asked for and has apparently received a pledge by the State that it will occupy space in the rehabilitated building. The State and its taxpayers are expected to start paying moneys to the developer, which could total much more than the $70 million to be paid up front in the property sale. According to the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which currently serves as owner-custodian of the troubled structure, the rebuild could cost as much as $325 million over a 2-year period.