Monday, December 15, 2008

Impeachment hearings start Tuesday

Seven days after Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest on federal corruption charges, a special Illinois House committee will start to meet every day, including weekends, other than four days for the holidays, as long as it takes to determine whether there is cause to impeach the governor. But even in crisis, the political rhetoric within the Statehouse today was thick, dashing the hopes of voters and government insiders hoping to see a sense of unity after a week of shocking corruption allegations.

Obama’s replacement
One thing the House will not do tomorrow is advance legislation that would allow for a special election to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. House Speaker Michael Madigan said his Democratic caucus was split on the idea and would like some extra time to consider it. The full House is not scheduled to return to Springfield until January 12.

House Republicans used the national spotlight to liken Democrats to enablers of the allegedly corrupt Democratic governor. Republicans like the idea of a special election not only because the GOP would have a chance to snag a Democratic seat, but, more importantly, because an election would avoid the perception of impropriety that plagues the current system of giving one person sole authority to appoint a replacement, said House Minority Leader Tom Cross.

Democratic Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie said there’s nothing inherently wrong with the appointment process, just the person currently holding the power to use it. He said he opposed the idea of changing state law because of one official who was disliked or incompetent.

Various versions of the special election legislation are here:
  • Rep. Jack Franks' version, HB 6730
  • The speaker's empty version, HB 6731
  • Rep. La Shawn Ford's version, HB 6732
  • And the Republicans' version, HB 6733.

The special committee to investigate whether there’s cause for impeachment consists of 21 members, including 12 Democrats and nine Republicans. Democratic members must have served at least six terms. Republicans have not yet released their committee members, as of this post.

The vein of evidence to be collected? “Abuse of power,” Madigan said during a Statehouse news conference this afternoon. “The many instances where the governor took governmental action without authority by the legislature, took governmental action without an appropriation having been adopted, instances where he ignored directives from the legislature.”

Find a one-stop-shop for Blagojevich stories and analysis at Illinois Issues magazine here.

The speaker’s staff has been reviewing grounds for impeachment for about a year, he said. The committee, chaired by Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, also likely would attach the criminal complaint against Blagojevich as evidence. They are asking the U.S. attorney’s office for cooperation in sharing information.

Madigan will preside over the proceedings, which will be public hearings that take place in the state Capitol.

The estimated timeline has ranged from a few weeks to a few months. Madigan said the governor’s decision about whether to attend the proceedings as “invited” could play into how long the process takes. “If he does not appear personally or through an agent, it will greatly shorten the proceedings of the committee. If he appears personally or through an agent, it will lengthen the proceedings of the committee. That’s all I can tell you.”

Whatever the timeline, it’s expected to be thorough. “We are going to move with all deliberate speed, but we’re not going to trample anybody’s constitutional rights in the process,” Madigan said.

If the proceedings run into the next General Assembly, which is scheduled to start January 15, committee members said they would vote to allow their work to carry over.

Currie emphasized that the proceedings aren’t just about Blagojevich. Given the Illinois Constitution’s vague description of the impeachment process, this investigative committee’s actions set precedent for the future, Currie said. “And it is absolutely critical that we do this deliberately, that we don’t rush to judgment, that we don’t say, ‘Because the public is clamoring for his head, we should take the head first and do the trial later.’”

The governor’s office declined to comment.

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