Thursday, December 18, 2008

Impeachment: Day 3

The evidence gathered during the third day of the Illinois House’s impeachment investigation will play a role in committee members’ decisions about whether to recommend impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Yet the answers committee members could not get from witnesses today is likely to be just as important, if not more, in determining whether the governor is fulfilling his constitutional duties.

Questions floated during today’s nearly seven-hour hearing focused on three things:
  1. Has the governor exceeded his authority, and is he directly responsible for the expansion of a state health care program without legislative approval?
  2. Do particular state audits of his administration document a habitual ignorance or flat-out disregard for state and federal laws?
  3. Has his administration unnecessarily and inappropriately withheld information from the public?

Ultimately, the committee is looking for a pattern of behavior. Today’s testimony offered information that dated back to 2003, the first year Blagojevich took office.

“For those of us who have been around the building for the last six or seven years, some of it’s old news,” said Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is presiding over the impeachment investigation. “But in the context of a pattern of abuse of power, abuse of law, abuse of the appropriations process, I think it all shows a real pattern of behavior.”

The known work of the committee is done, Brown said. But it’s unknown yet whether the U.S. attorney’s office will give the OK to invite testimony from people involved in the ongoing criminal investigation(s), mainly Ali Ata and Joseph Cari (see the Day 1 blog). The committee went home for the weekend but will return to the state Capitol at noon Monday. Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, committee chair, told members to be prepared for two days of work, but the specific agenda is unknown.

Here are some highlights of information gathered from today’s hearing:

Administrative authority (JCAR)
Committee members could not get straight answers about who ultimately made the decision to expand the state-sponsored health insurance program despite rejections the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Simply called JCAR, the bipartisan legislative panel reviews administrative rules to make sure they stay true to the legislative intent. Read lots of background information about the expansion of FamilyCare in previous blogs.

A group of businessmen filed a lawsuit against the governor, claiming that he expanded a state-sponsored health care program to middle-income families without legislative approval and without specific spending authority to pay for it.

Director Barry Maram pointed out that court rulings have not specifically addressed whether the Department of Healthcare and Family Services had authority to expand the program. Court decisions so far have only determined that the eligibility criteria used for the FamilyCare expansion don’t abide by federal employment rules (see more here).

Fun fact: Since JCAR was created 31 years ago, nearly half of the rules it has suspended or prohibited have happened during the past six years of the Blagojevich administration, according to Vicki Thomas, executive director of JCAR.

The governor’s office has said JCAR is just an advisory body. Thomas said if the state didn’t have a JCAR, it would lead to “abuse of power and serious problems of separation of powers because then you would have the administration making law.”

Auditor General Bill Holland cited a June 2005 audit that documented significant problems in the agency where the governor consolidated many of the state’s important functions, Central Management Services. So-called efficiency initiatives turned out to be not so efficient, costing state agencies more money than they saved, Holland said. But the agency’s contracting practices were even more problematic. Many times, members of the governor’s staff played key roles in selecting the companies that would receive the state contract, which is unusual, he said. In one instance, a state contract was granted to an agency that did not yet exist.

Holland said routine requests for such information as contracts and travel vouchers also have been problematic. “Every year those are questions we’re going to ask … but when we ask for information and it is now being routinely given to legal staff, that is not making it any easier. It is making it more complex,” he said.

Holland also repeated the scenario in which he said the governor illegally tried to import doses of flu vaccine after initial scare of a shortage, but the U.S. government never approved the European vaccine. It eventually was meant to ship to Pakistan, but it didn’t get used there, either, because it expired.

Freedom of Information
The administration had shown “disregard” and “contempt” of the law on rather routine requests for public documents under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, said Jay Stewart, executive director of the Chicago-based Better Government Association. He said the administration repeatedly denied his requests, which isn’t that unusual. But what is unusual is that officials couldn’t confirm whether they had the information requested, and if they did have the information, they wouldn’t provide it. Stewart said it was the first “hypothetical denial” he’s ever received. The association has been trying to get access to federal grand jury subpoenas served upon the administration.

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