Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A “new low” and a challenge for the future

House and Senate members are preparing to return early next week in an emergency session to change state law and call for a special election to replace President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. The power to appoint a replacement currently is held by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, but that power is the focus of today’s federal corruption charges against the governor.

“It’s a very sad day for Illinois government,” said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, whose office is spearheading the ongoing corruption investigation. “Gov. Blagojevich has taken us to a truly new low.”

Numerous state officials are requesting that Blagojevich to step aside, resign or prepare for the Illinois House to investigate whether there is cause for impeachment.

The FBI awoke Blagojevich at 6 a.m. with an arrest warrant at his Chicago home, according to Robert Grant, U.S. special agent-in-charge of the FBI’s Chicago office. A day before the governor’s 52nd birthday, he’s charged with extensive political corruption related to the five-year-old Operation Board Games investigation that exposed the rigging of state boards to benefit the governor’s political campaign fund. But the focus of today’s charges are much more appalling, Fitzgerald said. Today’s charges focus on Blagojevich’s actions since October, particularly allegations that he wanted to financially gain from his U.S. Senate selection. See the criminal complaint for details.

Fitzgerald said the complaint made no allegations that Obama knew anything of Blagojevich’s actions.

Obama, heard during an unrelated news conference on CNN, said: “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening. It’s a sad day for Illinois. Beyond that, I don’t think it’s appropriate to comment.”

The complaint
Perhaps most surprising to many throughout the day was the timing of the arrests of Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris. Illinoisans have suspected for quite some time that the governor might be indicted. But given the investigations, as well as the corruption trial of convicted felon and Blagojevich insider Tony Rezko, and the upcoming enactment of a new ethics law trying to prevent so-called pay-to-play conduct, it’s shocking that the governor allegedly would participate in a “political crime spree” as recently as a week ago, Fitzgerald said.

“You might have thought in that environment that pay-to-play would slow down. The opposite happened. It sped up,” he said during a Chicago news conference, heard through Web casts.

Fitzgerald said the investigation was made public today in order to stop conduct that could have had dire consequences for the nation, as well as specific individuals.

A 76-page criminal complaint released this morning alleges that Blagojevich feverishly tried to collect as much campaign cash as possible in anticipation of the new ethics law, which was aimed at Blagojevich. Starting in the New Year, it will be illegal for executive officers to collect donations from those seeking significant business with the state. Fitzgerald said recent wiretaps of Blagojevich’s phone revealed that the governor allegedly wanted to ensure the financial welfare of his family and of his political future. Blagojevich’s campaign fund, at last report, was paying a significant amount in legal fees related to the ongoing investigations.

Fitzgerald mentioned more specific allegations:
  • Conspiring to threaten to withhold state aid for the Tribune Co. if it didn’t fire Chicago Tribune board members who were critical of Blagojevich.
  • Conspiring to withhold $8 million state aid for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago if the chief executive officer didn’t donate to Blagojevich’s political campaign.
  • Conspiring to shake down the person who wanted state legislation enacted that would shave profits from the state’s riverboats and casinos to help the horse racing industry compete. (Here’s a statement from the Illinois Harness Horsemen’s Association: “[The association] has not been cited, named or implicated, nor are we involved, in any of the issues contained in the Department of Justice complaint against Gov. Blagojevich.)

The governor’s office issued a statement trying to reassure Illinois residents that this wouldn’t prevent them from accessing services: “Today’s allegations do nothing to impact the services, duties or function of the state.” The paragraph did not indicate whether Blagojevich would step aside or resign.

As of this post, Blagojevich still has the authority to appoint Obama’s Senate replacement and to serve as governor. However, numerous officials are urging the governor to step aside and are working to stop the governor’s power to fill the Senate seat.

The impeachment
In case Blagojevich doesn’t step aside, House Minority Leader Tom Cross requested that the House immediately start impeachment hearings. However, legislators must tread carefully, as Blagojevich is entitled to due process. He’s been arrested, not convicted.

But the Illinois Constitution allows the House to investigate whether there is cause for impeachment, which would require a majority of House members voting to do so (scroll down to Section 14). The state Senate then would conduct a trial, with a state Supreme Court justice officiating. It would take a two-thirds vote of Senate members to convict the governor. The conviction would only remove him from office and prevent him or her from holding any public office in the state. It’s not a criminal conviction.

But given how extremely rare impeachment proceedings are in Illinois, there are no permanent rules for impeachment in Illinois, according to the annotated state Constitution. For how Blagojevich’s arrests fits in with Illinois history, check out our list of legally challenged governors from The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent.

Kent Redfield, political scientist with the University of Illinois at Springfield, estimated that impeachment proceedings also would take at least a month to conduct. Just like a court case, the process would involve forming an investigation, gathering evidence, calling witnesses and prosecuting and defending the charges. It would be hard to do quickly and shouldn’t be done quickly if the General Assembly wants to ensure due process, he said.

In the meantime, Redfield said the House speaker and the new Senate president could try to “govern around the governor.” We’ll have more on this possibility in the coming days and weeks.

The future
It’s clear that Illinois has a reputation. FBI Agent Grant had this to say: “If it isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it’s certainly one hell of a competitor.” He added that agents who listened to the wiretaps “were thoroughly disgusted and revolted by what they heard. And I think even the most cynical agents in our office were shocked.”

Redfield said he, like the FBI agents, hoped that Ryan’s corruption convictions last year would send a message that personally gaining from public office is a thing of the past.

“As long as we allow politicians to treat politics that way, where it’s all about private gain and personal advantage, then we’re going to continue to have this stuff. Thank God for a vigilant, aggressive federal prosecutor. But at some point, the citizens of Illinois have got to start electing better people to public office and applying higher standards.

The kicker: “Because we did reelect this person two years ago.”

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