Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Burris is caught in a nasty political storm

Things just keep getting weirder in Illinois. It’s been widely understood that the U.S. Senate leaders would reject any appointment by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama. But now, not only is Blagojevich defying the undeniable, he’s also managed to involve race in a situation that already is clouded by sensationalism.

Blagojevich on Tuesday said he is appointing former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to fulfill the last two years of Obama’s Senate term, but Burris is unlikely to actually serve in the seat. Secretary of State Jesse White said he is refusing to co-sign the paperwork, thereby blocking the appointment. Even if White lacks authority to do so, all Democratic U.S. senators already announced they would reject the governor’s appointment regardless of whom he picked.

State Treasurer Alexi Gainnoulias said Blagojevich’s actions heighten the need for a quick impeachment. “Regardless of whether he wanted to appoint Mother Theresa or Abraham Lincoln, I believe Blagojevich lost that right when he allegedly attempted to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. … Because of Blagojevich’s actions, the appointment process has been tainted and will continue to be tainted as long as he holds office.”

Republicans continue to call for a special election to replace Obama, but the Illinois Democratic leadership did not advance legislation that would allow for that to happen. House GOP Leader Tom Cross said in a Statehouse news conference today that, yes, the Republican Party would stand to benefit from a special election, but it’s the only way to start to clean the stain left by Blagojevich’s arrest December 9. “The special election is the one way to say, not only to this state, but to the country: We learned something. We got it. We’re going to avoid any appearance of impropriety.”

Cross said he was shocked Tuesday morning when he heard the governor would appoint a Senate replacement even though an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving the appointment topped a 76-page criminal complaint against the governor. “I thought it was a joke. Literally, I thought, ‘There’s no way. It’s just some sick, funny, wacky rumor that’s on the Internet, that there’s no way in a million years it’s going to happen. He would not do this.” Cross said he couldn’t take the wildest guess about why the governor would actually follow through on the appointment. Then he pondered that the governor might be akin to a rabid dog in the corner that’s going to lash out in anger at the world.

Cross said Tuesday’s action could quicken the pace of the House committee investigating cause for impeachment.

Whatever the governor’s intentions, Burris is now caught in a political storm that might blow over his 40 years of experience. The Centralia native of southern Illinois became the first African American elected to a statewide office, serving three terms as state comptroller between 1979 and 1991, followed by one term as attorney general. His political experience includes serving as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee from 1985 to 1989.

But his political experience also includes repeated and failed attempts to win higher office. He’s run for governor three times, including in 2002 against Blagojevich. He also ran for the U.S. Senate and for Chicago mayor. Read this Illinois Issues profile of Burris in 1998: “What makes Roland run?

Kent Redfield, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said although Burris had been lobbying for Obama's seat and although he’s always had the image of aiming for higher office, it’s surprising that he accepted the appointment. “I think he’s letting his ambition cloud his judgment. He and the governor seem to share one thing, which is that ‘it’s about me.’”

Accepting the position after Blagojevich’s arrest also has potential to taint Burris as "Blagojevich’s senator," Redfield added. “It doesn’t matter if he’s pure as the driven snow.”

Blagojevich actually made a plea to the public during his Chicago news conference, seen on CNN. “I’d like to ask everyone to do one last thing: Please don’t allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man.”

The plea thickened when U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush joined the news conference and thanked God for Blagojevich’s selection of Burris because he is an African American with 40 years of public service. He said maintaining an African American seat vacated by Obama is a matter of national importance. “Roland Burris stands head and shoulders above most elected officials in this nation, and so there’s no rhyme or reason that he should not be seated in the U.S. Senate,” Rush said. Then he added this racially-charged challenge: “I don’t think there’s anyone, any U.S. senator, who’s sitting in the Senate right now, [who] would want to go on record to deny one African American from being seated in the U.S. Senate. I don’t think they want to go on record doing that.”

Burris said he had no relationship with “that situation,” referring to the governor’s legal problems. Standing at Blagojevich’s side, he said: “I have no comment on what the governor’s circumstance is. And as a former attorney general of this state, I know, and I think most of you all know, that in this legal process, you’re innocent until you’re proven guilty.”

The House committee investigating impeachment is on hold until at least January 5, when the feds could decide whether to release recorded conversations detailed in the criminal complaint.

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.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Impeachment: Day 4

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s defense team gets a week to gather witnesses and put together a presentation to the House investigation committee, which met today for about four hours before adjourning for the week. The committee will return to work at 11 a.m. December 29.

One challenge for Edward Genson, the governor’s attorney, will be to produce witnesses that the committee deems relevant to its investigation. And that investigation is not whether the governor is a swell fella, said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, chair of the investigative committee. The mission is to determine whether Blagojevich has repeatedly abused his power or mismanaged the state.

“What we’re about is: Has he behaved in ways that have so seriously undercut the public trust and public confidence? Has he breached his responsibility to the citizens of Illinois?”

Committee members also face a challenge. They have to decide whether the information gathered so far demonstrates arrogance, incompetence, deliberate skirting of the process or invasion of the legislature’s authority, Currie said. If it is any one of those things, then the bigger question is: Is that an impeachable offense?

Genson has and will continue to argue that the information gathered so far is inadequate for impeachment. “There are no facts here. All we have are inferences.”

On the other hand, he said, “challenging the facts is a difficult matter because quite frankly, everybody who I perceive that’s involved is going to run under their beds and hide when I want to call them.”

As of Monday afternoon, he said he had nine people in mind he would like to invite to testify, but that could change. He wouldn’t mention names. He did say that he would submit a list of potential witnesses to Currie’s office Tuesday morning.

In the meantime, the committee is still waiting to hear from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald’s office about the committee’s own witnesses it would like to invite. You can read names of those desired witnesses in a formal letter to Fitzgerald, asking him to determine whether the witnesses would interfere with his ongoing criminal investigation.

Not even committee members expect Fitzgerald to grant authority to interview everyone on the list. Genson was even more blunt: “The chances of them complying with your or my subpoena is nil.”

More evidence or inference?
Day four of the impeachment investigation involved gathering evidence from public documents and legislative agencies that say they struggle to work with the Blagojevich administration. The testimony, again, produced nothing new but did further the committee’s inquiry into abuse of power and political misuse of office.

  • The Procurement Policy Board, which oversees state property leases, added similar testimony to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules from last week: It’s difficult to get timely information or to get results when asked to adjust the administration’s plans. “This board is being ignored,” said Ed Bedore, Procurement Policy Board member. Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat on the investigative committee, said the trick is to determine whether the board’s experiences demonstrate gross incompetence or corrupt motivations.
  • The Procurement Policy Board also started looking into whether property owners who have contracts with the state also have contributed to the governor’s political campaign. It’s not a formal policy to check, said Matt Brown, executive director of the agency, but he did say they did not check campaign contributions before the governor took office in 2003. One property manager donated $50,000 to the governor’s campaign.
  • Further campaign contribution details were offered by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform’s executive director, Cindi Canary, whose testimony cited news accounts and state records that show a list of state contractors who donated $25,000 contributions to the governor’s campaign. But there so far is no proof whether those campaign contributions lead to state contracts or vice versa. “Definitely the dots have not been connected,” Currie said. “I anticipate this is exactly the kind of thing that they have been looking for in the ongoing investigation of the Blagojevich administration.”
  • John Scully, former assistant U.S. attorney, verified the extensive review process for federal investigators who request authority to plant wiretaps and bugs as part of criminal investigations. He described at least seven layers of bureaucracy and a standard that must be met, including probable cause that a certain person committed a certain crime using a certain phone or room and that there is no other way to get that type of information. His testimony counteracted arguments by the governor’s attorney, who maintains that the wiretapped information cited in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich shouldn’t be used as evidence because it’s incomplete and, he said, illegal.

Quote of the day
Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Republican member on the committee, likened pay-to-play politics to pornography: “You know it when you see it.”

See documents involved in the investigation here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Blagojevich: It's kind of lonely right now, but ...

By Bethany Jaeger
Dana Heupel contributed to this report

Gov. Rod Blagojevich proclaimed his innocence and said he will fight the criminal charges brought against him by federal investigators earlier this month. Although he paused at times to compose himself, his tone and his conviction stayed true to the audacious Blagojevich that we have come to know.

"I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing, that I intend to stay on the job, and I intend to fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight, I will fight, I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong."

He spoke from a Chicago news conference, seen on national television, the first time he's addressed the public since his December 9 arrest. It was an ironic juxtaposition: Blagojevich spoke about 10 minutes after another Chicago news conference of President-elect Barack Obama, whose vacant U.S. Senate seat was the impetus for Blagojevich's arrest. At the Drake Hotel-Chicago, Obama officially announced former U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, a Peoria Republican, as transportation secretary.

At a state building a few blocks away, Blagojevich denounced the criminal complaints, including that he tried to sell Obama's Senate seat and repeatedly schemed to personally gain from public office. He said he would not step down because of "false accusations and a political lynch mob."

He also took a direct shot at Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan by criticizing his "accusers and political enemies" of talking about his case in "30-second sound bites on Meet the Press or on the TV news."

In a plight to the public, he pleaded for patience and the presumption of innocence.

"It’s kind of lonely right now, but I have on my side the most powerful ally there is, and it’s the truth. And besides, I have the personal knowledge that I have not done anything wrong."

He did not address how he would continue to manage the state. However, after Blagojevich walked away without taking questions, a member of his legal defense, Sam Adam Jr., said the governor could step aside in the future "if the people of Illinois suffer." But Adam said he has every faith that Blagojevich will continue to be able to governor. "He can do it, and he will."

Meanwhile, the Illinois House impeachment investigation is on a three-day break and will reconvene in Springfield Monday.

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.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Impeachment: Day 1

Jamey Dunn, Public Affairs Reporting intern, contributed to this report.

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.

House investigation
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.

Political process
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.:
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.

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.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lisa Madigan tries to involve the High Court

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the Illinois Supreme Court to temporarily remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office and replace him with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. But the process to get Blagojevich out of office — if he doesn’t resign first — already started in the legislature and in the federal courts.

It’s unknown whether the high court will even hear the case or how long it would take, but Madigan said with Blagojevich in office, the state is paralyzed and in crisis.

“In light of his arrest and the filing of his criminal complaint, Gov. Blagoejvich can no longer fulfill his official duties with any legitimacy,” she said during a Chicago news conference, carried live on multiple media outlets, including CNN.

She seeks a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, which she said could be quicker than the impeachment process. However, she wants the Illinois legislature to continue pursuing impeachment and trial.

If Madigan’s motion were to succeed before the Supreme Court, Blagojevich would be prevented from filling the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, acting on legislation, directing state contracts, directing the Illinois Finance Authority and dolling out state funds.

Among the items held up by this week’s events is a $1.4 billion borrowing plan that would help the state pay an extreme backlog in bills owed to medical providers who care for Medicaid patients. The plan was supposed to be carried out this week; however, it needs the attorney general’s signature to certify that she’s unaware of any proceeding or threatened litigation challenging the authority of the governor to hold his office. “So I, at this point, would not necessarily be able to sign that,” she said.

Madigan said is her job as the attorney general to serve as the lawyer for the people of the state, and it is her job to present the question to the court. However, the motions beg political questions, to which she did not address during her press conference. “Political issues and political matters are not even on my radar screen this week,” she said to a question about her filling the vacant U.S. Senate seat.

She is exploring a run for governor in 2010. She also is the daughter of House Speaker Michael Madigan, arch nemesis of Blagojevich.

Here are the documents filed in Springfield this morning:
The motion for a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction
The brief in support of the motion
The motion for leave to file a verified complaint
The Supreme Court Rule 382 upon which Madigan’s motion is based
(If the links still aren't working, try here.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It only gets harder

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s arrest this week unleashed a fury of activity that a) demonstrates how complicated and unprecedented this week’s events have been in Illinois and b) gives us a potential glimpse into what our future state government could look like.

Everyone agrees that the state legislature needs to act quickly but fairly. Yet, there’s already dissension among the legislative leaders and the second-in-command, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. If next week’s emergency legislative session doesn’t foster some kind of consensus-building atmosphere, the national media will continue to sharpen their pencils and take copious notes about how such a screwed up state produced the next U.S. president.

Case in point: CNN’s headline the day after the governor’s arrest: “Illinois state politics read more like a script from ‘The Sopranos’ than a page out of the history books.”

The context
  1. All 50 Democratic U.S. senators indicated they would not seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich to replace President-elect Barack Obama, so that begs the question of how Obama should be replaced: Let the lieutenant governor appoint a replacement, or change state law to let the Illinois voters elect a new senator.
  2. There’s mounting pressure, even from the future president of the United States, for Blagojevich to resign. If he doesn’t, which is somewhat expected for this unpredictable individual, then there’s question of whether the legislature or the state Supreme Court shall kick him out of office.

The intertwined debate
In a very gubernatorial-like news conference from his Statehouse office this morning, Quinn said he doesn’t want to wait for a special election to fill Obama’s Senate seat. He would select a replacement as his first act as governor, if Blagojevich resigns or is forced out.

Quinn added that the governor’s legal problems already cost the state. Standard & Poor’s Rating Services put the state on a negative credit watch, potentially making it more expensive for the state to borrow $1.4 billion to pay down backlogged bills.

“We’re going to have to spend more taxpayer money to borrow $1.4 billion … because we have a cloud, a storm cloud, over the governor of Illinois and his chief of staff,” Quinn said.

The short-term borrowing is delayed by a few days, according to Carol Knowles, spokeswoman for state Comptroller Dan Hynes. She did not comment about why it was delayed but later said, "Everything in state government is in jeopardy as long as the governor remains in office."

The need for that borrowing plan adds to the urgency of why the Illinois General Assembly should immediately address “the source of the problem,” Quinn said, referring to getting Blagojevich out of office. “To focus on anything other than that, I think, is missing the highest priority.”

The House and Senate are scheduled to come back into emergency session Monday and Tuesday, but the intent is to advance legislation that would change state law so that voters could choose Obama’s replacement through a special election.

Quinn frequently speaks of “government by the people and for the people” and said that a special election would be ideal in normal circumstances. But the current scenario would make it more delayed and more expensive — by about half a year and $50 million. Quinn said that lag time would rob the state of a voice while the Congress voted on major decisions for reviving the national economy.

So far, there’s little indication that the chambers will comply with Quinn’s ideas.

Senate Republicans released a statement that supports the call for a special election. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno is quoted in the release as saying: “It is ludicrous to talk about anyone appointing the next United States senator. … There is no way that an appointment process can be free from the stench of this corrupt administration.”

In Illinois, the lieutenant governor and the governor do not run as running mates in the spring primary elections. They get lumped together on the same ticket in the November general election, making Blagojevich and Quinn running mates. Yet, Quinn said this morning that since the 2006 election, he repeatedly has spoken out against Blagojevich for various reasons, including the vastly unpopular idea to levy a gross receipts tax on businesses. Quinn was one of the most vocal supporters of an amendment to the state Constitution to allow voters to recall elected officials, a movement started because of Blagojevich. Quinn also held a rally of sorts outside one of Blagojevich’s fundraising events this year to support ethics reforms that will ban so-called pay-to-play politics, the heart of the federal probes involving Blagojevich.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross said a special election is the only way to help restore the public’s trust in the system. And while not alleging anything improper done by Quinn, Cross said an election would avoid perceptions that the appointment process is tainted.

Cross also introduced the first resolution that could start the impeachment process. It would form a committee to gather evidence and determine whether there’s cause for impeachment. Four House Democrats also released a letter saying they wanted impeachment proceedings to start immediately, allowing for the quicker appointment of a U.S. Senate replacement.

House Speaker Michael Madigan said he’s “prepared to discuss the suggestions of the House Republican Leader.” But it doesn’t look like he’s exactly on board with them. Steve Brown, Madigan’s spokesman, said: “They just want to have a committee to investigate the investigation. That seems like a two-step backward process to me.”

Cross, however, said this afternoon that his proposal is based on House proceedings in 1997. A special investigative committee was formed to gather evidence and decide whether it was enough to move forward with impeachment proceedings for then-Illinois Supreme Court Justice James Heiple. “There’s not a lot of history, here. There’s not a lot of guidance in the Constitution, so we’re trying to respect what the speaker did before,” Cross said. “The bottom line is we want to move forward.”

If Madigan wants to jump right into impeachment proceedings by the full House, Cross said he’s open to that. “I’m not going to block something because the speaker has a different way to go. We just need to move, I think, soon.”

The Heiple impeachment took six weeks. Former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment process took four months. Cross guessed that Illinois could get it done in about month, although no one really knows. “Regardless of the amount of time it takes, I think you need to start the process, or it’ll just hang over us longer and longer and longer.”

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.”

How Blagojevich fits into Illinois history

Given today's arrest of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, we thought it might be helpful to consider the context of his arrest. Here is a list of Illinois governors tainted by corruption. Complete with page numbers, the information is gathered by Beverley Scobell at Illinois Issues magazine and contained in The Illinois Governors: Mostly Good and Competent.

Only one governor, Len Small (1921-1929) was indicted while in office. In July 1921, he was indicted by the attorney general whose appropriation he had cut (page 196, new edition of Governors book). Charges were conspiracy and embezzlement of interest money during Small's second term as state treasurer. The criminal trial held in Waukegan in 1922 ended with an acquittal. One historian suggested jury tampering because after the trial, four jurors received state jobs.

Four governors were indicted after their terms ended:
  • William Stratton (1953-1961) was indicted in 1964 for violating income tax laws. He was acquitted on tax evasion charges centered on campaign contributions (page 242)
  • Otto Kerner (1961-1968) was convicted in 1973 of conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud and making false statements on income tax returns. He served 7 months of a 3-year sentence, released on parole when lung cancer was diagnosed (page 250 of the new edition of Mostly Good).
  • Dan Walker (1973-1977) was sentenced after pleading guilty to bank fraud, misapplication of bank funds and perjury in 1987. He served one and a half years of a 7-year sentence (page 272).
  • George Ryan (1999-2003) was indicted the December following his term on charges of tax fraud, racketeering conspiracy and other and crimes related to his actions as secretary of state. He was convicted in 2006 and began serving a 6 1/2 year sentence in November 2007.

One other governor, Joel Matteson (1853-1857), would probably have been indicted under today's laws. In the last year of of his governorship, he engineered the Scrip Scandal (page 80, new edition), where he cashed again notes issued to build the I&M Canal that had been redeemed but not cancelled. The state Senate Revenue Committee indicted him in 1859, held a trial, convicted then reversed the decision and finally acquitted him. He finally repaid the state more than $250,000 ordered by Sangamon County Circuit Court in 1863.

Blagojevich arrested on corruption charges

Federal authorities arrested Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his chief of staff, John Harris, in Chicago early this morning on charges of ongoing — and very recent — plans to personally benefit from, among various official acts, replacing President-elect Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate. According to a 78-page criminal complaint by the U.S. attorney of the Northern District of Illinois, the conspiracy allegedly included threatening to withhold state aid for the Tribune Co. if it didn’t fire Chicago Tribune board members who were critical of Blagojevich. The allegations of corruption are long and shocking.

Here is the news release from the U.S. attorney’s office and the criminal complaint, first made available by the Chicago Tribune.

The governor is scheduled to appear in court before U.S. Judge Nan Nolan this afternoon.

We’ll learn more at 11 a.m. when U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is expected to hold a news conference in Chicago. Stay tuned for more background and analysis about what the governor’s arrest means for state operations and for Obama's Senate seat.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Consolidation concerns

On one hand, good government groups and business executives are backing the state treasurer’s plan to narrow control of pension investments made on behalf of public employees. On the other hand, pension managers oppose the idea because of its potential cost and market losses.

Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias said the intent is to save money and to address ethical violations exposed during the federal probe surrounding Tony Rezko (see Operation Board Games background). The proposal would need approval from the General Assembly, which has been cool to various “consolidation” proposals after Gov. Rod Blagojevich merged many state agency functions in his first term. But Giannoulias said now is the time, considering the state’s need to free up some cash and to regain the public’s trust.

In a Chicago news conference Monday morning, Giannoulias pitched his “complete overhaul” of the state’s five pension systems for teachers, lawmakers, judges, state workers and university employees. He wants to merge three boards that oversee investments of those five pension systems and replace them with a single new fund, the Illinois Public Employees’ Retirement System. He shortened it to ILPERS.

Giannoulias said the consolidation could cost about $25 million upfront, but it also would save up to $80 million each year. According to his numbers, that includes $12 million saved from reduced administrative functions and up to $70 million saved from fewer fees paid to private investment firms.

The Teachers Retirement System disagrees and pegs the cost of moving assets much higher at “hundreds of millions of dollars.” In a statement, TRS also said a consolidated investment board could make the systems less accountable to members and more vulnerable to influence of elected officials and “investment experts.”

Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican who serves as minority spokesman of the Senate Pensions and Investments Committee, doesn’t buy the estimated savings without seeing more details. He added that the state could save money by improving coordination between the five pension systems without consolidating them. However, he said he would have to give Giannoulias’ proposal a fair shake. “We cannot afford not to look at every possible efficiency and savings,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Schoenberg, an Evanston Democrat who has sponsored similar pension reforms last year, questioned whether a single board would erase a system of checks and balances. He explained in his new blog: “I’m skeptical that bigger always means better when it comes to governing public finance. … Folding all the state retirement systems into one board doesn’t necessarily mean more accountability.”

He also questioned whether the creation of a mega-fund would translate into fewer opportunities for investment firms owned by women and minorities. Giannoulias’ spokesman said those concerns would be addressed in the upcoming legislation (it could be filed this month, according to spokesman Scott Burnham).

Schoenberg said he would welcome the chance to continue working on legislation that stalled last year. It would include similar ethics reforms, including prohibiting board members and their family members from working for firms that do business with the state. In other words, he supports most but not all of the plan.

“I would put consolidation in the icebox because it is likely to face difficult sledding in the legislature,” he said on his cell phone Monday.

Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation of Chicago, described Giannoulias’ legislation as “loaded with common-sense, realistic change that needs to happen,” including ongoing training and work experience requirements for the 13 new board members. As someone who has led reform efforts to curb Illinois pension debt, Msall spoke to the fears of existing state employees and retirees. During the news conference, he said: “No pensioneer, no retiree, not even existing state employees who are not yet retired, their benefits are not going to be changed as a result of this. That is a part of a challenge going forward for the state of Illinois, but it’s not addressed in this legislation.”

Cindi Canary, director of the Campaign for Political Reform and a force behind the state’s upcoming pay-to-play ban on state contractors, lauded the proposal’s demand for higher ethical standards and stricter disclosure requirements for board members. “This is a critically important first step and a model [of] how we try to do government differently and how we try to do government for the people,” she said during the news conference.

Other supporters include Jay Stewart of the Better Government Association and Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, both based in Chicago. And Blagojevich issued a statement saying the administration supports increasing efficiency and transparency of state government pension systems, "provided that all efforts are made to ensure the diversity among investment managers and protect the interest of annuitants."