Monday, December 29, 2008

Impeachment: Day 5, defense

Things could get a lot more interesting in the Statehouse January 5. Federal prosecutors want to release some of the secret recordings detailed in the criminal complaint against Gov. Rod Blagojevich. If the recordings were released, it would enhance the depth of evidence gathered by the Illinois House committee investigating if there’s cause to impeach Blagojevich.

To this point, there have been two veins of evidence gathered by the committee. One is the criminal complaint filed by the feds. However, the committee has been limited in how far it can delve into the allegations because it was asked not to interfere with the federal probe. The second vein is potential non-criminal offenses, primarily whether Blagojevich abused his executive powers. The governor’s attorney has argued that the committee has failed to meet a burden of proof that the governor did anything other than “chatter” and “jabber” about ways to use his powers.

But if U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald gets approval from Chief Judge James Holderman to release recordings of four conversations in full and redacted form, the House committee would have potentially criminal evidence, not just political evidence. Fitzgerald technically isn’t required to get court approval before releasing recordings, but his motion filed Monday said he is doing so now “out of an abundance of caution.”

The conversations would be limited to one alleged deal to collect $100,000 in campaign contributions to Blagojevich by January 1 in exchange for his signature on a bill. The bill described in the affidavit would shave 3 percent of riverboat profits to subsidize the horse racing industry.

The description of the conversation — found in paragraph 68(e) on page 39 of the criminal complaint — includes “Fundraiser A,” “Contributor 1” and “Lobbyist 1.” Anyone who thought they would be harmed by the release of the recordings can file a motion to stop the release.

Edward Genson, the governor’s attorney, would not say Monday whether he would fight the release of those recordings. He repeatedly has argued that the wiretaps and bugs of the governor’s conversations were illegally obtained and should not be included as evidence in the House investigation or in a criminal trial.

Genson got his chance to present a formal defense of the governor at Monday’s hearing in the state Capitol.

“The fact is we’re fighting shadows here,” he said to legislators. “We’re fighting unnamed people, we’re fighting witnesses that aren’t available, we’re fighting people that haven’t been indicted, we’re fighting preliminary hearings that haven’t been, we’re fighting parades of allegations that people who are dissatisfied with the administration but certainly haven’t talked to us about criminal conduct. We have a mere complaint.”

Genson said the committee must meet a burden of proof provided in the 1997 impeachment investigation of then-Illinois Supreme Court Justice James Heiple. The standard then, he said, was that non-criminal offenses “must be of a magnitude and gravity comparable to the criminal standard.”

Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat on the committee, said this committee is not bound to the standards provided in a 10-year-old case. In fact, he said, the state Constitution only requires that a committee find “cause.”

“Each member of the House of Representatives, and, if it gets that far, each member of the Senate, will decide what ‘cause’ is and what ‘cause’ means,” Lang said. “There is no definition in the law.”

Lang also took issue with Genson’s interpretation of the standard needed for information that is not part of the criminal complaint. “In my view, and I’m going to guess the view of many sitting with me, a non-criminal violation of the Constitution is still a violation of the governor’s constitutional oath,” Lang said. “And, therefore, if this committee finds that the governor has violated his constitutional oath for whatever reason, that would be cause or grounds for possible impeachment.”

Lang also countered Genson’s comments that the conversations outlined in the criminal complaint consist of “chatter” that fail to prove that anything illegal happened. Lang said talk of so-called pay-to-play politics is enough for this committee. “It’s a crime in the state of Illinois to offer to do a public act for value. Whether somebody takes you up on that offer is irrelevant.”

Committee members said they’re weighing the totality of circumstances presented since the governor’s arrest. Yet, many members aren’t exactly keeping a poker face.

“I think a lot of members have begun to make up their minds, at least members on this committee,” said Rep. Gary Hannig, a Democratic member. “And it appears to me that they’re beginning to move towards the side of impeachment.”

The committee is on hold until at least January 5 or until the court decides whether to support Fitzgerald’s release of the selected recorded conversations.

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