It’s the first day that the Illinois House is investigating cause for impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and Kent Redfield already anticipates articles of impeachment from the House and a successful trial by the Senate.
A political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Redfield said that politically, the governor has forfeited his ability to govern.
Both chambers took actions today that attempt to establish precedent for the proceedings, given that the state Constitution’s vague language and the state’s short history on the process.
The House committee’s investigation will lead to a recommendation about whether to hold actual impeachment proceedings by the full House. More significant action will start Wednesday, when the first witnesses will be called and the rules will be adopted.
Should the House send articles of impeachment over to the Senate, then that chamber is preparing rules to guide a trial. A special committee created today will will draft the rules.
But the process starts with the House. Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, chair of the House investigative committee, said she intends to call witnesses to testify, including Ali Ata and Joseph Cari. Both were convicted of felonies related to the federal investigation into the Blagojevich Administration’s hiring and contracting practices
However, the request for witnesses could interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. The federal prosecutor asked for a letter with more specific requests about the committee's plans.
Until Fitzgerald’s office responds, members might not meet seven days a week as scheduled. “While we are prepared to work, roll up our sleeves, get it done in a timely but deliberative fashion, we may be stymied early in the investigation by an inability to get clear answers from the United States attorney,” Currie said.
Then again, Redfield said, the effect on the feds’ criminal case is a completely separate issue. “Obviously the legislature’s not going to force someone to testify in ways that would compromise their legal position, but the legislature cannot focus on what this does to the U.S. attorney’s criminal case. The legislature has to focus on what is its political duty, its constitutional duty, in terms of exercising impeachment in a situation that clearly calls for impeachment.”
Even without the U.S. attorney’s cooperation
Even if the feds think the House committee’s proceedings could compromise the criminal investigation, some Democrats and Republicans said they have enough information to go on for impeachment.
Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and longtime Blagojevich critic, said the plea agreements of Ata and Cari (Ata’s here; Cari’s here) spell out so-called pay-to-play politics, where Ata donated $25,000 to Blagojevich’s political campaign and landed a $125,000 state job soon after. “I’ve been asking for these [hearings] for months, well before this arrest occurred,” Franks said. “I’m confident that we have enough information.”
Franks also intends to discuss two state audits that looked into the governor’s purchase of doses of European flu vaccines that went unused, as well as a $1 million grant mistakenly given to a Chicago school.
The committee might not even need the criminal charges. Showing a significant abuse of power by the executive could itself be adequate cause for impeachment, Currie said.
That’s partially because the impeachment process is a political proceeding, according to Redfield. While the committee will consider criminal charges filed by the feds, it also will consider the governor’s performance. And it doesn't have to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. “This is about whether or not the governor has violated his oath of office, whether he is fit to govern or whether he can govern. It’s a political decision.”
Partisan politics also are inevitable. Republicans will have ample opportunity to make Democrats look bad, considering Democrats control every office in this state. Call it retribution for years of GOP fallout from former Gov. George Ryan.
“It’s going to be very easy to get into broad questions of policy and the failures of the Democratic leaders, as well as the governor, to get things done,” Redfield said.
Senate Republicans, in fact, said in a Statehouse news conference this afternoon that they urge an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the impeachment-related committees to prevent the majority party from being able to cover up facts that could hurt the party’s reputation.
“Is this more about uncovering everything and learning about everything that maybe the governor was involved in, or is it about just selectively trying to carve the governor out of the process and leave everything in place?” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “If the latter is what happens, there will not be reform in Illinois politics. There will just be more of the same.”
Here’s the Senate resolution creating a nine-member committee to come up with the rules for a potential impeachment trial. Democrats have five members, Republicans four.
Impeachment: Day 2 and 3
The real work in the House investigative committee will start Wednesday, when members have invited the governor’s lawyer to testify. Items on the agenda, starting at 11 a.m.:
- Digest the 76-page criminal complaint against Blagojevich
- Review the plea agreement of Ali Ata
- Review the plea agreement of Joe Cari
Thursday’s agenda would focus on information not needed from the U.S. attorney’s office. That includes two items:
- Cases in which the governor might have exceeded his authority, including initiatives he tried to advance through the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. For instance, the governor tried to enact a FamilyCare health insurance program for middle-income families.
- Audits of the governor’s effort to secure doses of European flu vaccine without legislative approval.
Obama’s replacement update
To the Senate GOP’s disappointment, the Senate did not consider legislation that would allow for a special election of President-elect Barack Obama’s replacement in the U.S. Senate. The House Democrats asked for more time to consider such a measure, which wouldn’t happen until the General Assembly returns January 12.