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Richard Sitler / Richard Sitler, The Southern 

Carbondale senior Darius Beane dunks in the fourth quarter during the 54th Annual Carbondale Holiday Tournament at SIU Arena on Wednesday.

Fund set up to support employees of Pinckneyville's Grecian Steak House, destroyed in weekend fire

PINCKNEYVILLE — David Pirsein, president of First National Bank in Pinckneyville, said as news about the early morning fire on Dec. 23 that destroyed the Grecian Steak House spread, people were sad, but also expressed a desire to help the Sandravelis family and their employees.

The Pinckneyville Chamber of Commerce has set up a fund at First National Bank and Murphy-Wall State Bank and Trust Co. so that desire to help can be realized.

“It’s an initiative that the chamber is coordinating for the community. There’s been a lot of interest in reaching out to help the Grecian, especially the families who were working at the Grecian,” Pirsein said. “The chamber was gracious enough to agree to coordinate those efforts.”

Deposits can be made at First National Bank and Murphy-Wall State Bank locations in Pinckneyville, Murphysboro and Elkville. The chamber will distribute funds directly to the Grecian Steak House.

“We, being a business, thought it was a great idea to do this. We decided we would match the first $1,000 of donations,” Pirsein said.

Pirsein dreaded his first conversation with Grecian owner Angelos Sandravelis because he knew it would be emotional.

“I know Angelos was very emotional about his employees. He said he has good employees and his first concern was that his employees could survive this as well,” Pirsein said.

He also said he knows how much Angelos and Chrisoula Sandravelis have done for the community.

“Angelos has always been very good about helping,” Pirsein said. “He feeds the community at Thanksgiving for free. He does a lot of things that most people do not know about. People (who know of his charitable acts) appreciate what he does and the quality of food and service,” Pirsein said.

According to posts on the Grecian Steak House Facebook page, the restaurant offered free meals to veterans on Veterans Day and to seniors at Thanksgiving.

“We are all going to miss the Grecian. Whether it is someone celebrating a birthday or having a business meeting, Angelo is the first person we think about. We are going to miss him for a while," Pirsein said.

Angelos Sandravelis said the community is good to his family and his restaurant family.

“We are going to rebuild the place, as soon as we are allowed to go in and clean up,” Sandravelis said. “We have a lot of support here in Pinckneyville. We are very thankful for that.”

For now, what is left of the popular restaurant is in the hands of the Illinois State Fire Marshall and insurance companies. The cause of the fire has not yet been determined.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The remnants of the Grecian Steak and Seafood House are seen on Wednesday in Pinckneyville. The popular restaurant was destroyed by an early morning fire on Saturday.

The restaurant was undergoing a renovation and expansion, and it was nearly complete when the fire broke out.

“We remodeled and fixed up the place to make it better than it was, but we didn’t get to finish it,” Sandravelis said.

He says that is in the past. For now, the family is focusing on the future.

“There are a lot of people from all over Southern Illinois who are very sad,” Claudia Choate, vice president of marketing at Murphy-Wall State Bank, said.

Pirsein said a good percentage of his business comes from other towns.

“I have been in contact with the owner and he is planning on rebuilding,” Pinckneyville Mayor Robert Spencer said.

He added that the city is 100 percent behind Sandravelis and will assist him as much as possible as soon as his plan comes together.

“Our sympathy goes out to the owner and their family. We are glad that no one got hurt,” Spencer said.

Trump's Clinton tweets cut against Comey firing explanation

WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump fired James Comey in May, he said he was acting on the recommendation of Justice Department leaders who had faulted the FBI director for releasing "derogatory information" about Hillary Clinton at the conclusion of the email server investigation months earlier.

Yet with each tweet about the Clinton probe, Trump seems to be further undermining his administration's stated rationale for a termination that's now central to special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

The disconnect between Trump's attacks on Comey's handling of the email investigation and the criticism of Comey by his own Justice Department could muddy the explanation for exactly why Comey was fired, and may complicate efforts by the president's legal team to present a coherent narrative as Mueller and his prosecutors examine whether the dismissal could support obstruction of justice allegations.

Trump has complained for months about the FBI's decision not to pursue criminal charges against Clinton, his Democratic opponent in the 2016 presidential election, for her use of a personal email server. He has suggested the criminal investigation was rigged in her favor, claiming in one October tweet that Comey "totally protected" her. He recently seized on the revelation of politically charged text messages from an FBI agent who worked on that probe to again deride the investigation. And in a Saturday tweet that appeared to suggest Clinton should have been prosecuted, Trump caustically referred to "33,000 illegally deleted emails."

Yet those attacks are increasingly hard to square with a Justice Department memo that the White House held up as justification for firing Comey. That document, authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, cited an unusual July 2016 news conference in which Comey described Clinton and her aides as "extremely careless" as well as Comey's notification to Congress, days before the election, that the investigation was being revisited because of the sudden discovery of additional emails.

"From the beginning there's always been serious doubt that the memo from the deputy attorney general was the actual reason the president fired the FBI director," said Scott Fredericksen, a Washington criminal defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. "These tweets," he added, "probably don't help the president in that regard."

A lawyer for Trump did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Mueller's team has been interested for months in the circumstances of Comey's firing, with prosecutors obtaining an initial White House memo, drafted but never released, that purported to lay out a basis for Comey's removal.

The final memo the White House released on May 9, signed by Rosenstein, castigated Comey for announcing that criminal charges were not warranted against Clinton even though such determinations are generally left to Justice Department prosecutors. He also faulted Comey for comments made during that news conference, which Rosenstein said broke with Justice Department protocol by issuing "derogatory information" about someone who was investigated but never charged. Though he did not explicitly say it, his assessment seemed in line with that of Clinton and her supporters — that Comey's statements and actions during the investigation had harmed her election prospects.

"The Director laid out his version of the facts for the news media as if it were a closing argument, but without a trial," Rosenstein wrote. "It is a textbook example of what federal prosecutors and agents are taught not to do."

In a single-page letter to Comey released alongside Rosenstein's memo, Trump said he had accepted the Justice Department's recommendation for termination.

From the start, though, that explanation has been tough to reconcile with Trump's blistering attacks on Clinton, and his repeated assertions on the campaign trail and as president that she should have been prosecuted.

He returned to that theme days after Mueller revealed a plea deal with Michael Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, by tweeting: "Many people in our Country are asking what the 'Justice' Department is going to do about the fact that totally Crooked Hillary, AFTER receiving a subpoena from the United States Congress, deleted and 'acid washed' 33,000 Emails? No justice!"

"The irony is most politicians would recognize that perpetuating silence post-firing would have been the most effective course," said Jacob Frenkel, a Washington defense lawyer and former prosecutor.

In the event charges are brought or impeachment proceedings are begun, that kind of inconsistent messaging would present "not just entertaining fodder for cross-examination" but also material that could be used to challenge a witness's credibility, Frenkel said.

But by the same token, the evolving messaging could oddly benefit Trump by making it difficult for prosecutors to attach any one motive or reason — such as a desire to shut down the Russia investigation — for Comey's firing.

"Once you start picking on one tweet or one message, then it becomes, 'What about this tweet or that message?' You're constantly having competing messages," Frenkel said.

Southern Illinois group works year-round to brighten holidays for those who are low-income, HIV-positive

CARBONDALE — Despite its name, the AIDS Holiday Project is a year-round affair.

Wally Paynter, the project’s chairman, has been involved in helping low-income people who have been diagnosed with HIV and AIDS at the holidays for the last 26 years. He said while they do most of their giving during the holiday months, he has to work every day to keep the project’s agenda moving forward. He said the group's primary effort is to provide grocery gift cards to applicants and — when they are able — gifts for those in eligible households.

Paynter said the application period begins in September and ends in late October. Once this process is complete, Paynter said he and his team tally up how much money they have and split it among the different families. This year, he said every person who applied within the given time frame was able to receive help. He said applications are handled through HIV specialists or caseworkers.

He said there are requests that come late or throughout the year. He said some qualifying households move to the area after the deadline has passed or, Paynter said, some may not make it to the holiday, so they try to help before a person dies.

Paynter said he knows there are a lot more people living with the virus than they serve — 150 households last year in Southern Illinois, but the project also serves northern Kentucky and southwestern Indiana. The group focuses on those living at or below the poverty line. He also noted that for many, a diagnosis was another factor keeping them from moving out of poverty.

“A lot of people that started out in poverty and when you are adding poverty plus disability, plus stigma and then you add a couple kids on top of that, it's hard to make ends meet,” he said.

Paynter said the AIDS Holiday Project, like so many charities, gets most of its funds during the holidays as well as during its annual AIDS Walk. He said he tries to do something every day to move even a step closer to the goal of providing a better holiday for in-need families; but the group also does its best to raise awareness throughout the year.

Paynter works full-time for the Evansville, Indiana, Health Department as a disease intervention specialist. He tracks all new HIV/AIDS cases in his designated counties, and works through the concentric circles of those affected by new diagnoses. He pointed out that he has lived through the beginning of the AIDS crisis and said the conversation has died down about the disease, but said this couldn’t be blamed on any particular reason.

“I think we are dealing with human nature. I think we are dealing with things they don’t want to talk about,” he said, adding that many think HIV and AIDS are problems somewhere else.

“They think HIV and AIDS is something that’s in bigger cities and it’s not here,” he said.

Another facet of the project’s holiday work is helping provide gifts for the same families who are in need. However, Paynter said they do their best to put 100 percent of their donations to providing food and work the rest of the year to get families sponsored by donors. For example, one Madison County, Kentucky, church takes on 114 households and helps with their deliveries. This means one to two gifts per adult in the household and three to four gifts per child — he said the gifts focus on need as opposed to want. A toy and clothing are good examples of what might be given to children.

Paynter said he believes the holidays should be happy not just for those who can afford it, but for everyone.

“A kid should get a toy at Christmas at least,” he said.

He said sponsorship can be as little as $50 for a household of one.

As the new year approaches, work begins on next year's holiday project and March’s AIDS Walk at The Newman Center on the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus.

“We literally start the project all over again. It’s not just a one-month project,” Paynter said.

It is also time to begin gathering their roster of volunteers for the coming year. The first meeting for volunteers will be 7 p.m. Jan. 24 at Pagliai’s in Carbondale.

Paynter noted that the most basic way someone can extend a hand is actually by liking on Facebook the Southern Illinois AIDS Coalition or Southern Illinois AIDS Volunteers pages.