by Bethany Jaeger, Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell
Gov. Rod Blagojevich made his case to the state Senate rather than to the national media this morning, asking legislators how they could impeach him for pushing and prodding — sometimes too hard, he said — to protect seniors, infants and middle-class parents.
“I want to apologize to you for what happened,” Blagojevich said to the senators this morning, “but I can’t because I didn’t do anything wrong.”
House Prosecutor David Ellis disagreed and said that the ends don’t justify the means. When the camera is on, Ellis said in his rebuttal, the governor’s "for the little guy." When the camera is off, he’s for legal, personal and political gain, referring to one of the direct quotes in federal transcripts of 61 secretly recorded conversations.
On November 12, 2008, the feds recorded Blagojevich allegedly saying that his decision to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama would be based on "our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation. This decision, like every other one, needs to be based upon that. Legal. Personal. Political."
“Nothing in that statement about the people of Illinois,” Ellis said to the Senate. “Nothing in that statement about the little guy.”
Blagojevich gave his final speech, lasting about 50 minutes, before the Illinois Senate voted whether to convict him and remove him from office. Senators currently are deliberating on the Senate floor in five-minute speeches. Then they’re expected to take two votes, one whether to remove him and one whether to ban him from holding public office again.
Blagojevich maintained his innocence throughout the morning. He said if he did something wrong, he would have resigned in December. “I wouldn’t put my family through this. I wouldn’t put you through this. And most importantly, I wouldn’t put the people of Illinois through this.
“But I didn’t resign then, and I’m not resigning now because I have done nothing wrong.”
He said out of the first eight grounds for impeachment, which are lifted from the federal criminal complaint, evidence was presented in only one — the four secretly recorded conversations about signing a bill that would subsidize the horse racing industry.
Ellis played the recordings again this morning and said the governor’s own words prove that Blagojevich knew he was doing something wrong. Ellis repeated Blagojevich’s statements: “You should assume everybody’s listening. The whole world is listening. Don’t put it in writing. I would do it in person. I wouldn’t do it on the phone.”
Ellis stopped and asked the chamber, “Who says those words except somebody who has something to hide, something to cover up?”
Blagojevich never denied the voice on the recorders was his. Instead, he said those four tapes show no criminal activity. He then spoke directly to senators: “Take those four tapes as they are, and you will, I believe, in fairness, recognize and acknowledge that those are conversations relating to the things that all of us in politics do to try to run campaigns and try to win elections."
In response to the remaining allegations that he abused his executive powers, Blagojevich repeatedly questioned how he could be impeached for expanding health care to middle-income families, for importing cheaper prescription drugs for seniors and for importing European flu vaccine after a threat of a shortage.
He said the end was a moral imperative, justifying the means. “Always those ways were done in consultation with lawyers. And with all due respect to the prosecutor, Mr. Ellis, always the means were legal, and in most cases, the ends were moral.”
He added that all of those things happened in his first term as governor, and if they were so bad, the legislature should have impeached him then and that the public still voted to reelect him for a second term.
While Blagojevich reminded senators about the presumption of innocence, he also asked them to consider giving him more time to gather evidence. “If you’re not comfortable with an acquittal then extend this process.”
Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and vocal member of the House committee that recommended impeachment, said that if the governor had agreed to temporarily step aside, they would have considered giving him a month or two to prepare for the trial. Franks added that Blagojevich’s speech today was too little too late, particularly because it was not under oath.
“The way he came here today is so he can give a speech, but he would never answer a question and would never take the oath,” Franks said. “And that’s the big difference.”
Blagojevich continued that he wanted to clear his name so that he could get back to working on behalf of the people.
But Ellis said the governor’s own words, as transcribed in the criminal complaint, show that he no longer wanted the job. Blagojevich allegedly said he was stuck, that he would “suck it up” for two more years and that he contemplated leaving office in early 2009 by getting a position with President Barack Obama’s administration or as the head of a nonprofit organization, “anything, anything but the office of governor,” Ellis said.
Despite being on the same side of the political fence during the impeachment trial, Republican Sens. Matt Murphy of Palatine and Dale Righter of Mattoon had separate opinions about the governor's presentation. Murphy called the governor “a cynical, calculating, self-serving man who has cheated the people of this state good governance.”
Righter, on the other hand, while not condoning any of the charges leveled against the governor, said he was impressed with the governor’s speech, no matter how late in the trial it came. “The governor was pretty gracious in recognizing the fact that he could not have been elected governor, nor could he have achieved many of the policies which have wreaked havoc in this state without help from the majority of the General Assembly. And I think that’s something worth remembering."
Yet, Righter said he took issue with the governor's approach. “The unspoken theme of the governor’s speech was that the end, his end, justified whatever means are necessary. The problem I have with that is it does not square with our process of self-governance.”
Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno said the governor had a point that some of the grounds for impeachment happened during his first term, and she blamed Democrats for supporting Blagojevich's reelection run. But she said it’s not too late for his impeachment. “Quite frankly, I’ll give it some thought. But I am definitely planning to vote to impeach him.”