Thursday, January 08, 2009

Expect a unanimous vote to impeach

Hilary Russell and Jamey Dunn contributed to this report

If the 21-0 vote in tonight’s Illinois House committee is any indication, it’s likely that the full chamber will unanimously vote Friday in favor of impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

All Democratic and Republican members on the special House investigation committee voted to recommend impeachment based on the “totality of evidence,” ranging from trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat to evading federal law by importing doses of flu vaccine. A 69-page report (or click on the "proposed report" on the top) outlines 13 grounds for impeachment that generally include Blagojevich abusing his executive powers, rewarding and punishing people based on whether they donated to his political campaign and jeopardizing state operations in the process.

“We are a government of laws and not of men,” said Rep. Roger Eddy, a Republican committee member, later adding, “The hardworking people of the state of Illinois deserve public servants, not self-servants.”

Members said that although the state Constitution is extremely vague in setting a standard for impeachment, the committee’s three weeks of hearings and thousands of pages of evidence resulted in a thorough, fair and legitimate recommendation to impeach.

Blagojevich’s team disagreed and released a statement that said the proceedings were flawed and biased. “Today’s vote was not a surprise. The outcome was a foregone conclusion, especially when you consider the committee released its report hours before wrapping up testimony,” the statement said, referring to the morning release of the proposed report before the committee heard from Roland Burris, former Illinois attorney general whom Blagojevich appointed to fill Obama Senate seat. Read more about Burris’ appointment below.

Blagojevich attorney Edward Genson was allowed to present a defense for about three hours in one committee hearing; however, he was not granted the ability to cross-examine witnesses or issue his own subpoenas. Blagojevich’s statement said the governor anticipates a more legal process in the Illinois Senate. “When the case moves to the Senate, an actual judge will preside over the hearings, and the governor believes the outcome will be much different.”

Committee members said the House investigation was not designed to be a court of law, and the evidence gathered clearly demonstrated that Blagojevich is not fit to fulfill his constitutional oath as governor.

“The evidence is overwhelming, and it seems to me that there’s no choice but to vote to impeach this governor,” said Rep. Garry Hannig, a Democratic committee member. “It’s a difficult task, I think, to overturn an election. It’s a difficult task to remove someone from office, but, indeed, we have that obligation as members of the legislature.”

Republican Rep. Bill Black wasn’t as somber in his comments. He challenged voters to demand better. “I think it’s a good, glad, happy day for Illinois because it points out that nobody is above the law, and anybody will be held accountable for their actions. It may take too long, and there have been egregious abuses, if half of what we read is true, and I hope the message is received by all those in office and all those who will seek office in the future: Enough is enough. No more.

“And to the people of the state of Illinois, I think your charge is simple," he continued. "Hold each of us accountable, become informed voters and do not tolerate what has been often winked at in this state.”

The full House is scheduled to convene at 9 a.m. Friday for a vote on this resolution.

Burris expects to be seated
Roland Burris repeated that he was unaware of any quid pro quo in the way he was appointed by Blagojevich to fill Obama’s U.S. Senate seat. “I can before this committee state that there was nothing legal … personal … or political [in] exchange for my appointment to this seat.”

Burris raised eyebrows, however, when he said he spoke with Lon Monk, Blagojevich’s former chief of staff who reportedly cooperated with federal prosecutors in the ongoing criminal investigation. Burris said he spoke to Monk, lobbyist to lobbyist, around July 2008 (or September, he couldn't remember) to talk about potential clients and about his interest in the U.S. Senate seat.

After his testimony, Burris explained further in a news conference. He said he approached Monk to indicate that Burris’ law firm could represent his clients if Monk had a conflict of interest because he recently worked for state government. “We did say, ‘Lon, if you have any conflicts, consider referring it to us.’ That’s all it was about. And I happened to bring up … I’m also interested in that Senate seat. And I think you’ve got access to the governor, so just let him know that I’m interested. That was the extent of it.”

Burris, as well as consulting and law firms associated with him, donated more than $20,000 to Blagojevich’s campaign since he became governor, according to the House Republicans. Burris said he as an individual donated $4,500 over the past eight years. He said he has not contributed any money to Blagojevich since June 27, 2008.

Burris and numerous state legislators said they expect him eventually to be seated by the U.S. Senate, despite being denied access to the U.S. Senate floor earlier this week. Burris met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois in Washington yesterday. The conditions of his acceptance were to testify as a subpoenaed witness before the Illinois House committee and to get Secretary of State Jesse White’s signature to certify his appointment. White previously refused to sign the document because of the criminal allegations surrounding Blagojevich’s power to appoint a new U.S. senator, although many agree White lacks authority to block an appointment. The issue remains in court.

Rep. Jim Durkin, the Republican spokesman on the House impeachment committee, is the one who subpoenaed Burris. Durkin said it was the committee’s responsibility to ask these questions and get Burris on the record under oath, which could be particularly useful if he decides to run for reelection when Obama's Senate term expires. “Not only Washington, but people in Illinois are watching [Burris'] actions, the things that he’s done in his public life. And he will be held accountable with the public if he does run for election in 2010.”

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