Friday, January 09, 2009

Impeachment, Senate trial, Blagojevich, Burris

By Bethany Jaeger, Jamey Dunn and Hilary Russell

Sidestepping the criminal allegations that led the Illinois House to impeach him, Gov. Rod Blagojevich maintains his innocence and says that he “pushed and prodded the system” so he could expand health care to as many people as possible.

During a Chicago news conference this afternoon (heard on CNN), Blagojevich said he took actions with the advice of lawyers and experts to find “creative ways” to use his executive powers.

“And, in many cases, the things we did for people have literally saved lives. I don’t believe those are impeachable offenses,” he said.

But 114 House members disagreed. A near-unanimous vote supported 13 impeachable offenses that, according to the House, demonstrate a pattern of Blagojevich’s abuse of power and failure to fulfill his constitutional oath. His case now heads to the state Senate for a more formal trial, starting January 26.

Senate prepares
The House’s impeachment was more of a political process that leveled the accusations. The Senate trial will intend to prove those accusations.

But there is no precedent.

A special Senate committee met in Chicago today and drafted rules for the trial. Members looked to the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton, as well as some other states. More on that next week, but to give you some idea, the House will choose a lawyer to present the case, just like a prosecutor. The Senate will be both judge and jury, and the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Thomas Fitzgerald, will preside. Much like in a court trial, the defense will be allowed to call witnesses, make objections and provide rebuttals.

Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican on the special Senate committee drafting the rules, said the trial could span about 10 days. They’ll start by adopting official rules early next week.

Blagojevich defends
Citing specific examples of health-related initiatives, Blagojevich drew on the legislature’s failure to pass several bills as reasoning for his impeachment.

“From the very moment of my re-election, I’ve been engaged in a struggle with the House to try to get things done for people,” Blagojevich said, adding, “I’ve been pushing and prodding the House to expand health care and, unfortunately, they consistently stood in the way of those expansions.”

He went as far as crediting former Congressman Rahm Emanuel, new chief of staff for President-elect Barack Obama, for coming up with the idea to import cheaper prescription drugs for seniors. Blagojevich also described the Illinois Breast and Cervical Cancer Program as “a lifesaving program the House would not act on. I found a way with our lawyers to do it around the legislative process.”

He did not address a single item in the criminal complaint before walking away without taking questions.

House impeaches
Two House members did not support Blagojevich’s impeachment. Rep. Milt Patterson voted against the resolution to impeach, and Rep. Elga Jefferies voted “present.” Both are Chicago Democrats who said they were not convinced impeachment was the right thing to do.

“I went by my own gut feeling, it’s as simple as that,” Patterson said. “I read the report, and if the government is going to indict him, let them go ahead and do that. That’s their job. I’m doing my job.”

Jefferies, who lost her primary re-election bid last year, said she didn’t agree with all of the committee’s findings and that the members had to “really dig” to find cause for impeachment. “I think a lot of it was personal. And I think he’s due his process. I think this has been blown out of proportion, and I just could not vote ‘yes.’ I think, leave it up to the courts.”

The rest of the body agreed that the evidence was overwhelming and that the legislators had no choice but to impeach him so that the state could get back on track. Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican and GOP leader on the investigative committee, said one legislator’s son traveled all the way from China to use Illinois as an example of how of how bad government operates.

Nearly all legislators said the public deserves better.

“You ought to be disgusted,” said House Minority Leader Tom Cross. “You ought to be mad as hell because this is our state. This is our system.”

Many vowed to clean up state government. “This is a political process,” said Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat. “And it’s our duty, our duty, to clean up the mess and stop the freak show that has become our Illinois government.”

Some worried not only about how the national media perceives Illinois, but also how children and potential public servants interpret government’s role in this state.

Rep. Al Riley, a Matteson Democrat, said this is what he would tell his children: “Though we are sad in doing what we are compelled to do, it’s a great day for the state of Illinois. Why is it great? Because it proves that the system works. It proves that the system works, and no matter who you are, a kindergarten student, someone in high school, someone who has the public trust, if you violate that trust, if you do the wrong things, you will be found out, and you will be punished for it. Simply said. That the sun will still come up tomorrow. And we have systems in place to be sure that each person, each resident of the state of Illinois will be taken care of.”

Burris waits
The Illinois Supreme Court issued a ruling today that means former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris is, in fact, the appointee to the U.S. Senate.

The court order said Secretary of State Jesse White was not required to certify the governor’s appointment of Burris to the U.S. Senate, and, more importantly, “no further action is required by any officer of this state to make that appointment valid.”

According to the court, White performed his sole duty of registering the appointment into the state record on New Year’s Eve, even though he did not sign the form recommending Burris’ appointment.

Burris argued White had a mandatory duty under Congress to sign and affix the state seal to his appointment papers; however, the court said that was “wholly without merit.” That only applies to vacancies filled by election. And If Burris needs a copy of the letter with a state seal, he can still order one through the Secretary of State, as anyone can do.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid previously said his chamber could not accept Burris’ appointment without a certified letter. Now that the Illinois Supreme Court said the appointment is valid, the ball bounces into Reid’s court.

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