Friday, January 30, 2009

Quinn's first days in office

In his first full day as Illinois’ top executive, Gov. Pat Quinn addressed ethics and political campaigns, two topics fresh in the minds of voters after former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s legal and political problems.

Holding a bow tie of the late U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, Quinn signed his first executive order on the speaker’s podium outside of his new Statehouse office. The order officially charters an Ethics Reform Commission that he started a few weeks ago. By mid-March, the commission is expected to recommend major policy changes for everything from the way the state hires contractors to the way candidates fund political campaigns. Other topics of interest include improving transparency of state government, allowing voters to recall elected officials, revamping the way legislative districts are redrawn and strengthening protections for whistleblowers, according to Duane Noland of Blue Mound, former state lawmaker who was appointed to the commission. He said the ultimate goal is to change the attitude that Illinois has a culture of corruption and to start attracting better candidates.

The governor’s order establishes the commission as a public body, subject to public access and open meetings laws.

While that reform panel, led by former federal prosecutor Patrick Collins, could propose reforms that would be drastic for Illinois — including limiting the amount voters could donate to political campaigns — Quinn made a second statement this morning that could make waves with statewide political party leaders.

Quinn said he supports moving the primary election from February to September to shorten the campaign season. Illinois Democrats moved the date from March to February last year in an effort to boost the state’s significance in selecting now President Barack Obama as the Democratic candidate. Illinois became one of 22 states on the so-called Super-Duper Tuesday primary of 2008. The school of thought was that states that held later election dates would be less likely to matter because a majority of states already selected their candidates and doled out their electoral votes.

The ironic part is that because so many states had a February 5 primary, none mattered as much as the states that held primary elections later in the summer.

Quinn said the state’s February 2, 2010, primary would be the earliest in the country. “I don’t think it behooves Illinois or helps Illinois to have a huge, long, nine-month period of a general election. A lot of people think we are in perpetual campaign mode, perpetual fundraising mode. We need to identify the problems — that’s one of them, a big one — and I think solutions include having a shorter general election campaign, where the voters can evaluate the candidates. Six, seven, eight weeks is sufficient. It is for the presidency. I think it is for the governor.”

Moving a primary election, however, never has gained a consensus, said Steve Brown, spokesman for the Illinois Democratic Party, and may not actually shorten the campaign season. “We just saw where people were campaigning more than a year ahead of the balloting, so I don’t know that the date of the elections has that much to do with it anymore.”

He said while Illinois was in the mix of 22 Super-Duper Tuesday primaries, Illinois at least gave Obama a “good, solid big-state victory to offset Hillary Clinton’s” wins.

Quinn’s first few days in office starkly differ from Blagojevich’s tenure. Quinn ate dinner and slept in the governor’s mansion after taking his oath of office. He started his morning news conference less than 10 minutes late. He answered questions for about 30 minutes, and after he ended the news conference at the podium, he continued to talk to reporters who huddled around him.

His schedule today included meeting with all constitutional officers in Chicago and meeting with the Illinois Association of Park Districts. Tomorrow, he’s scheduled to speak at a conference of the pubic employees union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in Springfield, before heading to Peoria to thank volunteers who help people file their income tax returns and apply for low-income assistance. He said he wants to get to every part of the state quickly.

He also established his favorite phrase to describe his work ethic: Early to bed, early to rise. Work like hell and organize.

He said his hope is to have the most productive and reform-minded legislative session in recent memory. “That is what the public wants, and I think if we do what the public wants, we’ll do pretty well.”

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Meet Gov. Pat Quinn

By Bethany Jaeger
Pat Quinn was once booed on the House floor in 1976 (see our recent Pat Quinn profile here). Tonight, he received a standing ovation as he took the oath as Illinois’ 41st governor. Before all constitutional officers and legislative leaders, as well as family and friends and some lawmakers, Quinn smiled and raised his right hand.

Turning to the audience, filled with all constitutional officers and legislative leaders, he addressed the serious challenges ahead. He first recited the familiar words of one of his favorite politicians, Abraham Lincoln, by honoring the philosophy of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

He called upon Illinoisans to prepare to make sacrifices and to work together to solve the state’s economic crisis, fiscal crisis and integrity crisis. Then, fighting tears, he read a letter written by an admiral in the U.S. Navy about his late father, Patrick Quinn. He said the people of Illinois could benefit from the same characteristics possessed by his father. “If all of us, the people of Illinois, are cheerful, earnest, cooperative, frank and honest, we can achieve great things in the Land of Lincoln.”

After receiving congratulations from lawmakers, he conducted his first news conference as governor in the Statehouse Press Room. He often intermixed serious statements with more relaxed and jovial moments. Meanwhile, one flight of stairs below, people stood on watch for the locks to be changed on the executive office.

Quinn will make his first announcement as governor at 10 a.m. Friday outside of that Statehouse office. Joking with reporters, he said it will be a surprise. Otherwise, he said, “you won’t come back. It’s my one-and-only shot.” He said he plans to regularly be available to the media because he enjoys the exchange and because it keeps public officials accountable.

Seriousness culminated with mention of the state budget. He said with no cooperation from Blagojevich’s administration to ease the transition, the governor’s annual budget address has been moved back from February 18 to March 18, giving him time to assess the damage and find out what the true size of the deficit. “I think the governor has to level with the people of Illinois. That’s what they want. And then we’ll have a blueprint for digging out of this morass.”

He said the budget he will propose will be one “that will be a proper one for the times that we are finding ourselves in.” Tax increases could be on the table, but Quinn said: “Nobody likes paying taxes. April 15 is not my favorite day, never will be. So I think it’s important to understand that in our democracy, the price of being in a democracy is that citizens agree that they do have to pay taxes in order for the common good. And so we will find a way to have a fair system, which hopefully keeps taxes as low as possible.”

He repeatedly tried to shift the public’s focus to the future. “There’s a reason God put our eyes in front of our head. If we’re going to always look backwards, we probably won’t go very far in Illinois or anywhere else. I think we need to look forward.”

Priorities will include funding a capital plan, which he said will emphasize sustainable and efficient energy and conservation and infrastructure that will allow for fiber optic lines down the road. Other priorities will include public safety, education and health care.

He addressed various issues before heading to the Executive Mansion a few blocks away for dinner with his family, including his 91-year-old mother. Here’s a brief summary of the topics he addressed and philosophies that could drive his proposals next month:

  • Public employee positions will be “under review.” He said, “If you are doing a good job and being diligent, that’s what we’re looking for.”
  • The recently appointed director of the Department of Natural Resources, former Rep. Kurt Granberg of Carlyle, might not be up to par with Quinn’s desire to have a “natural resources professional” in that position.
  • He plans to open state parks and historic sites that Blagojevich closed after cutting state funding.
  • He will take down the Chicago Tollway signs with Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s name on them and might replace them with signs that say, “The people of Illinois welcome you.”
  • Quote of the night: “I am proud of being frugal. I’m a VIP member of the Super 8, and I moved up from Motel 6.”
  • He followed up with this: “I think being frugal is useful, but I am very generous. I think everyone will tell you that I’m very generous to a fault.”
  • He would not address whether he will run for governor in 2010. “I don’t think the people of Illinois need politics right now. We’ve had our dose of that — a heavy dose — for the last seven weeks. I think this should be a year of governance, where people really work on repairing damage and making things better. And there will be plenty of time for politics in 2010.”
Blagojevich: I will continue to fight for the people
By Jamey Dunn
At the same time Quinn gave his news conference, Blagojevich spoke outside of his home and said he was “saddened” but “not surprised” by the Senate’s decision to remove him from office. He listed what he deems as his accomplishments in health care and education and listed all the public servant jobs he has held from his most recent office back to when he was a prosecutor. He said that although he is no longer governor, he will continue to fight for the people of Illinois and to prove his innocence.

"I love the people of Illinois today now more than I ever did before."

Senate president sets a new tone

By Hilary Russell
Breaking promises, dismissing the legislature and provoking unconventional — and allegedly illegal — methods of fundraising will no longer be the rule to follow, said Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, following the conviction of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The conviction immediately removed Blagojevich from office and forbids him from holding any public office in Illinois in the future.

“We found no pleasure in today’s outcome,” Cullerton said. “We cannot change the past. The people of Illinois have every right to expect a future with those who are elected to do so in a matter befitting to office.”

Surrounded by 13 of his colleagues, Cullerton laid out the challenges the state needs to overcome, including its history of machine-style politics and a major financial deficit made worse by repeated scandal.

“We removed Mr. Blagojevich, former governor, from office for three reasons,” he said. “He has demonstrated a clear inability to govern. He has shown disdain for the laws and processes of this state, and he has deliberately and pathologically abused his power without regard for the people he was elected to serve.”

Blagojevich said all week long on national TV interviews that personality conflicts with the state legislature led to his impeachment, combined with their desire to get him out of office so they could raise state taxes.

“That’s not what this impeachment was about,” Cullerton said. “We read the impeachment articles that the House charged him with, the criminal offenses and abuses of power. And that is what the debate was about.”

“We did not do this for political expediency. We’re not settling old scores. We did not conspire to remove the governor for our own amusement or advantage,” he added.

Just as emphatically, Cullerton promised that the state, the home of the newest U.S. president, is on its own path of change.

“There’s going to be a new spirit of cooperation with the House and with the governor and with the Senate to help solve our problems.”

Unanimous vote to convict Blagojevich

By Jamey Dunn
Photograph by Jamey Dunn

Senators on both sides of the aisle expressed disappointment with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich before unanimously voting — 59 to 0 — to remove him from office Thursday. They also voted to prevent him from holding any future public office in Illinois.

Before the vote, all senators were allowed five minutes to speak during public deliberation, an exercise that spanned two and a half hours.

The governor was called everything from an “unusually good liar” by Sen. Matt Murphy, a Palatine Republican, to a “devious, cynical, crass and corrupt politician” by Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican.

Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, was enthusiastic about calling for impeachment. “This is not a sad day for me. This is a great day. We have this thing called impeachment, and it’s bleeping golden, and we’ve used it the right way.”

The fact that the governor presented no defense and only came to Springfield on the last day of the trial to make a closing argument did not seem to help his case with any of the senators. “The silence that spoke the loudest was the absence of the governor,” said newly elected Sen. Toi Hutchinson, a Democrat from Chicago.

Some senators made a connection between impeaching a governor on pay-to-play politics and a need for campaign finance reform in Illinois. “He became obsessed with assuming more and more power and monetary awards for himself and his future aspirations,” said Sen. Susan Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest.

Political scientist Kent Redfield of the University of Illinois at Springfield said the general public would tend to agree. “I think people will really make the connection between unlimited [campaign] contributions and the corruption.”

Many said they felt frustrated with the negative attention cast upon Illinois. Sen. Terry Link, a Waukegan Democrat, compared the impeachment to an infamous page in Illinois darker history, the 1968 Democratic National Convention. “The whole world is watching Illinois again today. And you know what? I'm sick and tired of it.”

A sobering moment came when former Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson of Greenville gave a tearful apology. Recovering from a stroke that forced him to give up his leadership position, he said that partisan atmosphere in the Senate had partially been his fault and urged the new leaders not to make the same mistake. Watson spoke directly to Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno of Lemont and Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago: “The way you two have started this session working together in cooperation is a good sign for the future.”

Blagojevich makes his case

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.”

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Expect the unexpected

Hilary Russell and Jamey Dunn contributed to this report
Since the governor’s public relations firm confirmed Gov. Rod Blagojevich plans to attend the last day of his impeachment trial Thursday, a lot of questions have come to bare.

One, from Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat: “How did we get here?”

But senators heard three days of testimony about that, including today’s allegations that Blagojevich abused his executive authority by trying to expand health care and import prescription drugs and doses of flu vaccine without legislative authority.

More immediate questions relate to what would happen if the Senate voted to convict the governor. Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno made a remark in jest that hits on a such a logistical question as: How would the governor get home if he doesn’t have access to the state plane that he often took to get back to Chicago? “I hope he has a ride home because I don’t think he’s going to have the state police to take him,” she said jokingly.

If the Senate convicts Blagojevich, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn immediately would take over. Quinn will be in Springfield tomorrow, his spokesman said.

But then there’s speculation that Blagojevich could resign tomorrow, spawning more questions about how to handle the impeachment. The Senate is allowed to take two votes: the first to convict, the second to determine whether Blagojevich would be banned from holding public office in Illinois again. If the governor resigned, the vote to convict wouldn’t be necessary, said Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne. But what if the senators still wanted to prevent him from holding another office? He said that hadn’t been worked out by the time he addressed the media this evening.

Earlier in the day, after Senate President John Cullerton announced that Blagojevich would give closing remarks around 11 a.m. Thursday, senators said they weren’t that surprised. “He’s all about PR,” Radogno said. “He’s all about press releases. I mean that’s how he’s governed for the whole time that he’s been here.”

“I’ve pretty well formulated my decision, and I will reserve the right to change my mind and be open as I can about this,” said Sen. Dave Koehler, a Peoria Democrat. “But it’s just a bit bizarre how he’s handled this thing.”

Sen. Dale Risinger, a Peoria Republican, said it is surprising, however, that Blagojevich didn’t defend himself during the trial even though he’s often mentioned being a former Golden Glove boxer. “It’s hard to feel sorry for him because he’s not tried to defend him self,” he said.

Blagojevich will attend last day of trial - UPDATED

Just as the Senate prepared to call the last witness in Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment trial this afternoon, Senate President John Cullerton announced that the governor may appear in the chamber Thursday to offer a closing argument.

A spokesman for the governor's public relations firm could not confirm at 3 p.m. whether the governor would, in fact, appear in Springfield tomorrow. Justin Herndon of the Publicity Agency said they were trying to figure out his schedule. But about 35 minutes later, the agency posted this update on it's social networking Twitter site: "Governor says he will go to Springfield tomorrow and appear before senators to make his case." Here's the press release.

The Senate trial rules allow 60 minutes for House Prosecutor David Ellis to make closing statements, which is scheduled to start at 10 a.m. Thursday. Then the governor or his legal defense would have 90 minutes to offer closing arguments, to which Ellis would have 30 minutes to offer a rebuttal. Times can be extended with a majority vote of the 59 senators. See Rule 16 of the Senate trial rules.

Senate trial Day 3: fewer witnesses

Hilary Russell contributed to this report.
Illinois Senate Republicans are concerned about the dwindling number of witnesses the prosecution team plans to call before the full chamber will vote on whether to convict Gov. Rod Blagojevich and remove him from office forever.

“Aside from getting to the verdict of the governor, I think that the people of Illinois deserve to have a full hearing and understanding of how far the corruption goes in this government,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, before the tribunal broke for lunch.

Yet, many senators expect a vote by the end of the week. That’s largely because without a defense presented on behalf of the governor, less time is needed than scheduled.

The prosecution team originally planned to call 13 witnesses, but House Prosecutor David Ellis dropped five House members from the list in favor of reviewing the criminal affidavit affirmed by Daniel Cain yesterday. Today, Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, testified about the plea agreements of Ali Ata and Joe Cari, previous members of the governor's inner circle.

Michael Kasper, counsel hired to support the House prosecution team, added that rather than have House members testify to give their characterization of evidence, it would be more appropriate for senators to look at that documents themselves and come up with their own perceptions.

Dillard said he was particularly worried about why Rep. Constance Howard, a Chicago Democrat, was scratched from the list. She originally was scheduled to testify about the injury to the people that has happened since the governor’s arrest, including a dropped bond rating that makes it more expensive for the state to borrow.

Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno said the evidence intended to demonstrate the governor’s mismanagement of the state “seems to be getting truncated at this point.” She added: “I think it’s not good for the public. The public is the one that’s been harmed by this … I think that it’s incumbent on us not only to give the governor a fair trial, but to let the public know that we have a good handle on the extent of this corruption.”

The prosecution today is focusing on the governor’s alleged abuse of his executive powers, with additional testimony this afternoon from the legislative review committee, the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Auditor General William Holland also will talk about the administration's effort to import European flu vaccine and Canadian prescription drugs, as well as an efficiency initiative that received bad reviews. We wrote about both items when the House heard similar testimony.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Senate trial Day 2: FBI recordings

By Bethany Jaeger
Hearing Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s voice on secret FBI recordings played today during his Senate impeachment trial drove home the criminal allegation that he attempted to secure campaign cash before a new state law took effect this year. They, along with testimony by the FBI agent who verified the recordings, were anticipated to be the highlight of the trial, but both seemed a bit anticlimactic. Even so, with only a handful of witnesses left on the schedule, senators are speculating that they could wrap up by the end of the week.

The governor’s voice echoed through the Senate sound system. While described as striking, the audio files also were short and incomplete. As GOP Sen. Dave Luechtefeld of Okawville said, legislators previously read more about the alleged scheme in the newspaper than they heard today.

Still, Luechtefeld said: “It does show the [enormity] of this, and I think you sort of catch your breath a little bit once you hear the tapes. And then it kind of whets your appetite for what else is on the tapes.”

Only four short conversations were released by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who is limiting the amount of information released to the impeachment proceedings from his ongoing criminal investigation. The conversations heard today were between the governor and his brother, Rob Blagojevich, and his former chief of staff, Lon Monk. One brief conversation, according to the federal transcripts, was between Monk and John Johnston, a horse racing official who allegedly was the target of the scheme to donate to Blagojevich’s campaign. They all allegedly involved a scheme to secure campaign donations for Blagojevich’s political fund in return for the governor’s signature on a bill to subsidize the horse racing industry.

Blagojevich was heard repeatedly asking whether Johnston was “good for it,” referring to the campaign contribution pledge. “Before the end of the year though, right?” Blagojevich was twice heard asking his brother.

Monk, who was a lobbyist at the time of the recordings, was later heard on a cell phone conversation with the governor telling him to call Johnston. “It’s better if you do it just from a pressure point of view,” Monk was heard saying to the governor.

FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain, who has more than 22 years experience investigating white-collar crimes, also received limited authorization the U.S. attorney to testify before the Senate today. Cain said that he and several other agents listened to the recordings as many times as necessary to verify the accuracy of the summaries and of the direct quotes contained within the affidavit.

Cain later said, “I would not have attributed statements to Gov. Blagojevich if I did not believe those statements were made by Gov. Blagojevich.”

According to the affidavit, the feds noted in early October 2008 that Blagojevich started accelerating corrupt fundraising activities in advance of new ethics legislation. The FBI received authorization to secretly record Blagojevich’s conversations within his campaign office and on his home telephone. Only four of many recordings were released for the Senate’s consideration.

Blagojevich said throughout a media blitz yesterday and today that he had not heard the recordings but that they were taken out of context. He said that the public would have a chance to know the whole truth once he tells his side of the story in federal court. He dismissed the Senate trial as unfair and “fixed” in a way that ensures his conviction and removal from office; however, he and his defense team declined to participate in the trial and missed deadlines to call their own witnesses.

(Contrary to what the governor said on numerous TV interviews, Senate President John Cullerton said the trial rules still allow the governor to call witnesses. A senator would have to make a motion to allow the governor to do so because he missed the set deadlines. Forty senators, or two-thirds of the chamber, would have to allow it.)

While Cain sat before the chamber, he could respond to little else other than that his affidavit was “true and accurate to the best of my belief at the time I signed it.” Senators wanted to know, for instance, whether legislators were recorded on the wiretaps and the conditions that led up to the wiretaps and bugs. They also couldn’t get an answer to how long state funds were withheld from Chicago Memorial Hospital while the governor sought a $50,000 contribution from the hospital administrator.

Senators continuously heard Cain say: “I can’t answer that question. It’s beyond the scope of my authorization.”

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and vocal member of the special House impeachment committee, sat in the audience to listen to the recordings. He said the audio files constituted pay-to-play politics. “He sounded like business as usual for the governor. This sounds like he’s done this before, you know? Because it seems like it was so well-orchestrated that this seemed to be normal for him, get it done ahead of time.”

He said while other evidence is important to the Senate’s consideration, the audio recordings make it “real.”

“It’s irrefutable at that point when you hear the governor’s voice and his biggest concern was making sure that he got the money by the end of the year because of the new law. There’s no other explanation for it.”

Sen. Dan Cronin, an Elmhurst Republican, said the lack of the governor’s defense “means there’s something missing, that there isn’t another view or a challenge, but, you know, these tapes pretty much speak for themselves.”

At least one senator wasn’t so sure. Sen. Mike Jacobs, an East Moline Democrat who has publicly feuded with the governor, said he’s not convinced. While Jacobs did not say how he intends to vote on whether to convict the governor, he did say he questioned the broad “abuse of power” allegations made by the House impeachment. He also questioned whether the feds were using the impeachment process to benefit their criminal case. “I never saw the governor act in a manner where I thought he was acting criminal, Jacobs said. “I’m not sure I’ve heard that, yet.”

Yet, Jacobs added, it’ll be hard not to impeach the governor without his defense. “By not being here, I think he’s put himself in grave jeopardy.”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Media blitz vs. Senate trial

By Hilary Russell and Jamey Dunn
Gov. Rod Blagojevich opted Monday to state his side of the story in the court of public opinion rather than in an impeachment trial considering his possible conviction and removal from office. While the governor had a full day of interviews with some rather quirky and comedic moments, the full Illinois Senate met for its first day of “solemn and serious” deliberations that set the stage for a more dramatic day Tuesday.

It started shortly after 7 a.m. with an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The View.” He later was a guest on "Larry King Live." In a taped interview on NBC’s the “Today Show,” Blagojevich compared himself to Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. While live on “Good Morning America,” he dropped what appears to be a planned bombshell that he considered appointing Oprah Winfrey to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.

“She seemed to be someone who would help Barack Obama significantly in the presidency, obviously someone with a much broader bully pulpit than a lot of senators,” he told Diane Sawyer. “My consideration of Oprah was tempered by the fact that she probably wouldn’t take it.”

The plug even caught Winfrey off guard. Winfrey received the news from best friend Gayle King while chatting on King’s Syrius radio talk show.

“Wait a minute if I’d been watching [Good Morning America] as I [usually] watch from the treadmill, I’d probably have fallen off the treadmill,” Winfrey said. “I’m pretty amused by the whole thing.” She said if offered the job, she would have said, “Uh, absolutely not. I would say where would I fit it in with my day job, my mid-day job, my night job, my radio job, my magazine job?”

While on “The View,” host Barbara Walters noted that First Lady Patti Blagojevich didn’t appear with the governor as scheduled. Walters said she canceled Sunday because she received advice from her father, Chicago Ald. Dick Mell, who told his daughter that Blagojevich uses people and then throws them away. The governor said on air that Mell’s comment had been taken out of context and was connected to an unrelated dispute over a landfill.

The interview ended on a lighter note when Joy Behar said she had heard that the governor does a good Nixon impression and asked him to raise his hands in peace signs and utter the infamous “I am not a crook” line. When the governor refused, she reached out and touched his infamous hair.

Blagojevich maintained his innocence throughout each interview, often repeating his stance that the impeachment trial process is severely biased toward him and just unfair.

“I’m here talking to Americans to let them know what’s happening in the Land of Lincoln. If they can do this to a sitting governor, deny me the right to bring witnesses in, and prove my innocence,” he said. “If they can do it in Illinois, they can do it in New York and other states where governors fight for the people.”

(Shortly after Day 1 of the Senate trial ended today, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton took issue with Blagojevich’s statements that the trial rules are unfair. Cullerton said the governor still could make motions to present his defense. It would be up to 40 of the 59 senators to allow his motion.)

Some major media personalities did defend the governor today. One source of support came from an impromptu interview with Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, who said he had been promised the first cable news interview with Blagojevich at 2 p.m. But Blagojevich’s press people canceled the interview at the last minute. Rivera accused Blagojevich’s newly hired publicist, Glenn Selig, of sabotaging the interview. Selig also represents Drew Peterson, a former Bolingbrook cop and suspect in the murder of at least one of his ex-wives.

Rivera knocked on the window of the governor’s SUV in a parking lot after his appearance on “The View.” When the governor recognized the reporter, he got out of his vehicle and granted the interview. Rivera backed up Blagojevich’s complaint about the Senate trial being unfair by referring to the proceedings as a “runaway train” that the governor could do nothing to stop.

Rivera asked Blagojevich if he was broke and what he would do if he lost his position and salary. Blagojevich compared himself to people facing unemployment due to the economic downturn. “There are tens of thousands of Americans who are losing their jobs as we speak. So I’m not the only one. And I’m not going to sit here and start whining about my fate. I’ll pick myself up, and I’ll figure out a way to make a living, and a good living, for my family.”

Rivera joked that he would buy the governor dinner, and Blagojevich laughed and asked if that would be ethical. The two hugged at the conclusion of the interview.

Impeachment trial
By Bethany Jaeger
Meanwhile, Illinois senators reacted to the governor’s media blitz by saying while he has the right not to attend the proceedings, he at least should have presented a defense rather than bounce between New York studios.

“It just goes to the pattern of the Blagojevich governorship, which is public relations and platitudes rather than actually showing up under the Capitol dome to conduct state business, let alone appear at his own impeachment trial,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican.

“We’re serious about this. We’ve taken an oath that we will do justice according to the law, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Senate Majority Leader James Clayborne. “This whole process has been embarrassing. We shouldn’t even be here today, but we’re here, and we’re going to do according to the law. We’re going to provide justice according to law.”

House prosecutor David Ellis, who represents the sentiments of the Illinois House when it voted to impeach the governor last month, said his case rests on the governor’s own actions and his own words, not the actions or words of others. Ellis alleged that the governor knowingly broke the law when serving as governor.

“Throughout this testimony, you will see that the governor clearly knew that what he was doing was illegal,” Ellis said to the Senate chamber. “The words he used to his subordinates — ‘Be careful how you say things. Assume everybody is listening. Don’t put anything in writing. Don’t talk on the phone. I would do it in person.’ — that’s the kind of advice the governor was giving to his subordinates throughout this evidence that we’ll talk about.”

Recorded conversations of the governor obtained as part of the ongoing criminal investigation will be “front and center” in Ellis’ case, starting tomorrow with the testimony of an FBI agent who validated the governor’s voice on the secret recordings.

Ellis said the evidence will show that the governor’s words went “well beyond harmless chatter or idle speculation to active plotting to personally enrich himself in exchange for official acts that the governor might take.”

Sen. Rickey Hendon, a Chicago Democrat, questioned some evidence sought by the House prosecutor, including a federal measure that would limit the amount Illinois would get in a stimulus package as long as Blagojevich were governor.

“I took an oath to hear the evidence, to ask tough questions,” Hendon said during a break in Senate action. “We have to ask some questions that otherwise we would have gotten from the defense because they’re not here — because I want to get at the truth.”

Hendon also wanted the ability to vote on each accusation separately as opposed to voting on all of the allegations as a whole. He selectively mentioned the governor’s health care expansions and free mass transit rides for seniors as actions that he supported.

“So those things give me problems,” he said. “But that being said, it only takes one article to impeach. So one charge of guilty with 40 votes is more than enough, and … the House did wrong by lumping everything together. And us as senators have a greater obligation to try to get to the truth and the facts.”

Senate trial begins: Day 1

As Gov. Rod Blagojevich continues his media blitz organized by his recently hired public relations firm, the Illinois Senate is beginning a trial without him under the oath to do “solemn and serious justice,” according to Supreme Court Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who is presiding over the proceedings. Without the governor or his defense team present, the senators are discussing behind closed doors whether to allow testimony of an FBI agent who listened to and verified recorded conversations of Blagojevich in his home and in his campaign office. Whether the full Senate allows the FBI agent's testimony could determine the depth of the remainder of the trial.

Illinois Senate Democrats and Republicans are meeting in private caucuses to formulate written questions, which they could do after each witness testifies. Formal rules for the trial require all questions to be submitted in writing to be asked by the chief justice.

House Prosecutor David Ellis, who is presenting the case against the governor, is seeking testimony from Special Agent Daniel Cain. He would testify about the authentication of a 76-page criminal complaint, which includes transcripts of recorded conversations within the governor’s home and campaign office. However, Cain would be limited in the scope of his testimony, as required by the man heading the ongoing criminal investigation of the governor, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald.

“We have to live with those rules,” Ellis said in his opening remarks. “I think it’s worth it. This is the man who led the investigation into Gov. Blagojevich. This is the man — rather than me just showing you that he signed the affidavit — he will take the witness stand, and he will swear to every paragraph that was true and accurate. I think it’s important for us to hear that.”

The full Senate must vote to allow Cain’s testimony into the record. Ellis said if allowed, Cain’s testimony would supplant the testimony of five House members originally sought as witnesses. The Senate also could hear actual recordings of conversations about the governor’s handling of a bill to subsidize the horse racing industry.

In addition, Ellis wants the full chamber to hear audio recordings of Blagojevich’s interview on WLS-AM’s Don and Roma show from last week. And he would submit information about Congress considering a bill to put restrictions on any federal money sent to Illinois as part of the federal stimulus package as long as Blagojevich remains governor. “We think it relevant the stain that the governor has put on the state, the injury to the state caused by his misdeeds,” Ellis said.

The trial is set to reconvene at 1:40 p.m.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The cowboy way

Jamey Dunn contributed to this post.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich today compared himself, among other things, to a cowboy facing a hanging before getting a fair trial. He used a rather dizzying metaphor to illustrate his series of accusations that the Illinois Senate impeachment trial set to begin Monday is a “sham” and a foregone conclusion.

He’s making a not guilty plea through the media rather than through the impeachment trial. It began with an exclusive interview on live Chicago radio this morning, followed by a Chicago news conference this afternoon. Throughout both events, he never denied that it was his voice on the FBI recordings that were obtained as part of the ongoing criminal investigation. Nor did he deny that he actually said those things transcribed in the 76-page criminal complaint, swear words and all. On WLS-AM radio’s Don and Roma show this morning, he apologized for the profanity. “But had I known they were listening, I wouldn’t have used those words.”

In both the radio interview and the news conference, he presented a conspiracy theory, of sorts, for why the state legislature is diligently working toward removing him from office: “They want to get me out fast so they can put a huge income tax increase on the people of Illinois, an income tax increase that I fought for six years,” he said. Referring to a proposal to increase the sales tax on motor fuel, he said, “If I’m out of the way, they can quietly push this through, and the people of Illinois are going to see their taxes go up during an economic depression.”

He said everything he has done as governor — including expanding health care to middle-class families, offering free mass transit rides for seniors, allowing women to get free pap smears and mammograms and increasing the minimum wage twice — was done in the best interest of the people and was "not that inconsistent with the way the process works.”

He also said the Senate trial rules deny the presumption of innocence and are choking his ability to tell the truth. He specifically blames two Senate rules, which he says prevent him from calling witnesses and from challenging the charges. He said he wants to call President Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as well as Obama administrator Valerie Jarrett, and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who Blagojevich said would verify proper conversations about appointing a replacement to Obama's U.S. Senate seat. And Blagojevich would call U.S. Sens. John Kerry and John McCain, as well as governors from Kansas and Wisconsin, who Blagojevich said helped in the effort to import prescription drugs from Canada for seniors.

“Just let me bring my witnesses in to show people and to have them under oath testify before the Senate that I have not done anything wrong and I’ve done mostly things right. And if they just give me a chance to bring witnesses, I’ll be there first thing Monday morning. It’s just that simple.”

The rules, however, are clear that his defense team could have called witnesses if they would have participated in the trial, which they don't plan to do. They missed the deadline to subpoena witnesses. Here’s that rule:
Rule 15(f)
It is never in order to request a subpoena for the testimony of any person or for the production of documents or other materials from that person if the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois has indicated that the person’s testimony, or inquiry into the subject matter of that person’s testimony, could compromise the U.S. Attorney’s criminal investigation of Rod R. Blagojevich, as exemplified by, but not limited to, exhibits 10, 24, and 30 of the House impeachment record, unless the U.S. Attorney subsequently indicates otherwise.

CLARIFICATION: He’s [somewhat] right that the rules do prevent him from challenging the charges detailed in the report recommending impeachment, as approved by the full House. But he could have filed a response to the charges, and he could have filed a motion to dismiss them. Neither he nor his lawyers did that by the deadlines. So he missed his chance to challenge the charges. Here’s that rule:
Rule 8(b)
The House Prosecutor or the Governor or his counsel may object to the admission or exclusion of evidence. Any objection must be addressed to the Chief Justice. No objection, however, may be made against all or any part of the House impeachment record filed by the House Prosecutor with the Secretary.

“In short, you can have all the witnesses you want,” Blagojevich said in the afternoon news conference. “It doesn’t matter because that document alone is going to be accepted as fact.”

Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, said the governor’s interpretations of the rules are “flat out wrong.” In a phone conversation yesterday, Dillard said: “We have certainly gone overboard to protect his due process rights, and, the rules are essentially copied from the federal system, which acquitted or did not impeach Bill Clinton. So under the same set of standards and guidelines, President Clinton walked.”

Kent Redfield, political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Clinton probably was guilty of some minor felonies but that he had strong political and public support, so the Senate would not convict. Blagojevich could be trying to do something similar, he said, appealing to Illinois citizens to apply pressure on the senators.

Redfield doesn’t buy it.

“He seems to be pretty removed from reality at this point,” he said. “We’re past the point that he can rally public opinion.”

Blagojevich throughout the day repeatedly cited historical figures — including Richard Nixon and Teddy Roosevelt. He also said he was in a modern-day Frank Capra movie such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where the good guy fights the establishment and gets accosted for breaking the rules but continues to fight for the people. “The only difference is some of the language is that you wouldn’t hear in the 1930s,” Blagojevich said.

Redfield says the governor is playing out the same act over and over again. “The frightening thing about that performance is that he seems to be completely sincere.”

Blagojevich did have a sentimental moment on the Don and Roma show this morning. He said he’s determined to clear his name and his reputation for the sake of his daughters, which he said is why he wouldn’t resign. “To simply cut and run is to simply say that I did something wrong, and then my little girls are going to grow up thinking somehow their dad did something wrong when I didn’t. That, I’ll never ever sacrifice.”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Blagojevich is fighting impeachment — "more to say later"

Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s failure to file a motion with the Illinois Senate to dismiss his impeachment case, to plead guilty or not guilty to the charges or to seek witnesses in the upcoming Senate trial doesn’t mean he’s not fighting the process. There’s a chance he could try to block the Senate impeachment trial by going to an actual court. Even so, the Senate trial will proceed with or without his defense team’s participation.

UPDATE: While the Chicago Sun-Times is now reporting, based on anonymous sources, that the governor’s attorneys will not challenge the Senate trial in federal court, constitutional law experts say even if he did, the court likely wouldn’t touch the case with a 10-foot pole because it’s a political matter at the state level.

John Nowak, the Simon chair in Constitutional Law at Loyola University Law School and longtime law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said: “While we don’t have a precise case on this, I would assume that the federal courts would rule that questions regarding the impeachment of a governor must be settled only by the political branches. That means the elected branches, just like all questions of impeachment of a president or a federal judge, have to be settled by Congress.”

The governor issued a statement this morning to say his defiance of the impeachment process has nothing to do with him but everything to do with the office of governor. “What the Senate and House are trying to do is to thwart the will of the people and remove a governor elected twice by the people without a fair hearing, without due process, and without giving me the right — the most basic right every citizen in our country has — and that is the right to call witnesses,” Blagojevich said in the statement. He said he would like to call Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, whose office said nothing improper took place during conversations about filling Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Per the Senate trial rules (Rule 15), the governor’s team does have the ability to call witnesses, although they missed the 4 p.m. deadline yesterday to file motions to call witnesses. That’s because the governor’s attorneys, including Chicago lawyers Sheldon Sorosky and Edward Genson, are not participating in the trial because, the governor said, “the rules which don’t allow me, as the governor, to call witnesses are unfair, and deny fundamental due process.”

He ended by saying: You can’t possibly defend yourself when they say you did something and they don't let you call witnesses to say you didn't do it. I’ll have more to say later.”

Blagojevich’s press office has “not been made aware of any plans” by the governor or by the attorneys to fight the Senate trial in an actual court, according to spokesman Brian Williamsen.

Meanwhile, things are taking shape for the Senate trial. The Illinois House prosecutor who will present the case against Blagojevich wants to hear from the FBI agent who listened to recorded conversations between the governor and his inner circle. But the subpoena request must be approved by a majority of Senate members, as well as the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Illinois, which obtained the recordings as part of the ongoing criminal investigation against the governor.

David Ellis, the House prosecutor, filed a motion last night to seek a subpoena of FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain. Ellis’s motion says Cain is familiar with every recording mentioned in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. It would be relevant, Ellis writes, because the Illinois House based the first five reasons to impeach on allegations outlined in that criminal complaint.

Ellis also is seeking voluntary testimony from people who testified before an impeachment inquiry committee of the House.

Here is Ellis' list of desired witnesses:
  • Andrew Morriss, professor with the Institute for Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the governor’s alleged abuse of his administrative powers and the defiance of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (Exhibit 50).
  • Auditor General William Holland about audits of the governor’s importation of European flu vaccine and prescription drugs, as well as the administration’s initiative to combine state agency functions (Exhibit 6a and 6b).
  • Former Assistant U.S. Attorney John Scully of Lake Villa about the process of getting approval to intercept oral and phone conversations (Exhibit 57).
  • Rep. Chapin Rose, a Mahomet Republican, summarizing the plea agreements of Ali Ata, Joseph Cari and Tony Rezko, all targets of federal investigations involving the decision-making process of the Health Facilities Planning Board (Exhibits 4, 5).
  • Rep. Connie Howard, a Chicago Democrat, about the drop of the state’s credit rating since the governor’s December 9 arrest (Exhibit 37).
  • Rep. David Miller, a Lynwood Democrat, about a 2004 report by the executive inspector general that describes “endemic hiring fraud” in the Illinois Department of Employment Security (Exhibit 43).
  • Rep. Gary Hannig, a Litchfield Democrat, about the governor’s alleged plot to withhold state funds from the Tribune Co. unless it fired an editorial board member.
  • Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat, who would talk about the governor’s attempts to import European flu vaccine, prescription drugs and efficiency initiatives (Exhibit 61).
  • Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican, about the ability of investigators to tap phone and personal conversations and the governor’s alleged plan to auction off the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama.
  • Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat, describing Blagojevich’s attempts to skirt the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules and to withhold information about his expanded health care program, FamilyCare (Exhibit 66).
  • Rep. Susana Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat, about allegations that the governor tried to trade official acts for campaign contributions from horse racing executives, a tollway contractor and a hospital executive.
  • Special Agent Daniel Cain about his signed affidavit (Exhibit 3) and his positive identification of the governor as the man whose voice was recorded by the FBI.
  • Vicki Thomas, executive director of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, about the panel’s objection to the governor’s plan to expand a state health insurance program (Exhibit 53).

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

He's been served

The weeks of cable TV jokes about Illinois' culture of corruption were confronted by a very abrupt and sober tone today as Gov. Rod Blagojevich presided over the state Senate for slightly more than an hour. The chamber officially elected two new legislative leaders, inviting an odd combination of awkwardness and hope. While the leaders face an ominous budget crisis, they first have to determine whether to remove Blagojevich from office for allegations of corruption and abuse of power. That trial process started today, and the Senate officially summoned the governor by delivering a copy of the grounds for impeachment to his Statehouse office.

Toby Trimmer, the Senate Democrats’ communications director, said the governor’s deputy general counsel, Andrew Stolfi, accepted the summons on Blagojevich’s behalf.

A few hours before, Blagojevich fulfilled his constitutional oath by swearing in the 96th General Assembly. The affair dripped with irony as he introduced Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would take his place if convicted by the Illinois Senate or by the feds; Supreme Court Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, who will preside over his impeachment trial; and Auditor General William Holland, who repeatedly wrote critical audits of the Blagojevich Administration. He also testified before the special Illinois House committee that recommended impeachment last week.

Legislators and guests in the Senate did not react when Blagojevich walked in, or more like slipped in from a back room of the chamber. He smiled and waved to a few people in the crowd, but his demeanor soon changed. He remained rather stoic as Senate members described the challenges ahead.

“Ideally, we’d be electing a Senate President under much different circumstances,” said Sen. Louis Viverito as he officially nominated Sen. John Cullerton as top Democratic leader. “A historic budget shortfall, the rising unemployment and the trial of our governor, never before has this [body been called upon] to deliberate these serious and solemn issues.”

He added that today’s proceedings marked an opportunity to take one “significant and meaningful step towards" restoring the public’s trust. When the Senate trial concludes, added Sen. Heather Steans, “we must address a massive budget deficit, pass meaningful ethics reform and get Illinois working and building again with a capital program.”

Blagojevich remained at the podium, looking directly at the speakers, sometimes glancing down or shifting his weight. He remained stoic and did not clap after their comments. But he gave a few closing comments of his own: “These are challenging times, hard economic times facing the people of Illinois. I hope we can find a way when dealing with other issues to find the truth and sort things out and put the business of the people first, to make sure we find solutions to the problems confronting people, do the best we can to ease their burdens and try to help people build better lives.”

He ended with what seemed like a personal request. “I hope that we can find some inspiration in Abraham Lincoln’s words of ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all,’ let us come together and get the business of the people done.”

Senate impeachment trial starts
By Jamey Dunn
The Senate officially elected Democratic Sen. John Cullerton as Senate president and Republican Sen. Christine Radogno as minority leader. Each voted for the other as a symbolic gesture of bipartisan cooperation and determination. While both acknowledged the daunting tasks ahead, starting with Blagojevich’s impeachment trial, they said it’ll get even harder when lawmakers have to figure out how to keep the state operating with lower-than-anticipated revenues and more than $4 billion in overdue bills.

Adding to the bad news, Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias later issued a warning that the state’s investments are not fairing well in the economic downturn. In a written statement, he said that the interest the state earns on its investments could be the lowest since the office started recording returns in 1986.

The Senate unanimously voted to adopt the rules for the impeachment trial, which will begin at noon January 26. They are expected to work six days a week until the process is over, as the rules prevent the Senate from working on Sundays. Until the trial starts, both House Prosecutor David Ellis and the governor’s defense counsel will prepare their cases by making a list of witnesses and pieces of evidence.

After both sides presented their arguments, the Senate will deliberate and vote. If two-thirds or more of the members, or 40 senators, vote to uphold just one charge against the governor, then he will be convicted and removed from office. Then, the Senate would vote whether he could ever hold public office in Illinois again.

House impeaches Blagojevich, again
By Hilary Russell
Perhaps the most peculiar moment of the Illinois House’s inauguration ceremony was that one of the first votes cast by newly elected Rep. Deborah Mell was whether to impeach her brother-in-law, Gov. Rod Blagojevich. She voted no, the only one to do so Wednesday as the 117 other House members re-impeached the governor.

“The charges and impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know,” Mell said in a statement. “I could not, in good conscience, vote for his impeachment.”

She is a Chicago Democrat, sister of First Lady Patricia Blagojevich and daughter of a well-known Chicago alderman who previously alleged that Blagojevich conducted pay-to-play politics. “Given my unique relationship to the governor, this is a vote to which I’ve given a great deal of consideration,” she said.

The House held its inauguration at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Then it re-impeached the governor as a technicality. The previous General Assembly impeached Blagojevich January 9. But members said it was better to be safe than sorry by allowing the 96th General Assembly to cast its own vote, which also allows new members to be on public record as voting to impeach the governor and use that fact in reelection campaigns.

The legislators dramatically pledged to banish old-style Illinois politics and undo the failures of the Blagojevich Administration, focusing on change, hope and a new beginning for the state and its residents.

House Speaker Michael Madigan and House Minority Leader Tom Cross accepted the nominations of their peers to continue serving as leaders of the chamber.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Smoking ban and budget restorations

Smoking ban finally could get some rules
By Hilary Russell
The legislature finally attempted to clarify the statewide smoking ban that took effect last January and that has lacked rules for its enforcement since then. Some Senate Republicans foresee problems, including the fuzzy guidelines about how and where people can fight their tickets.

“I still have some concerns with the ability of an individual to challenge a citation and where they’ll have to drive to get to that,” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “I think if we give this a little time for the legislation we’ve passed here to work, we’re going to see if that’s a real issue or not.”

The original smoking ban did little more than allow authorities to ticket individuals and businesses, leaving both law enforcement and smokers scratching their heads about how to issue those citations and how to appeal them. The new rules should take care of that, according to sponsor and incoming Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat. “We probably won’t need any more rules because the bill spells out exactly how it should be enforced.”

The ban prohibits smoking in most public facilities including restaurants, bars, student dormitories and office buildings. Ti
ckets could cost from $100 to $250. Exempt from the law are nursing homes and veteran’s homes with specific smoking rooms, private residences and state labs used for medical or scientific research. The Illinois Smoke Free Act went into effect January 1, 2008. Illinois is one of 22 states that prohibit smoking in public places.

One more shot at budget restorations

By Jamey Dunn
The legislature wants to restore funding for three executive officers, an economic development agency and some health care and conservation projects, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich doesn’t appear to agree with the legislators' last-minute attempt to get something done before a new General Assembly starts Wednesday.

The Illinois Senate approved a measure, SB 1132, Tuesday that would restore funding to the secretary of state, the attorney general, the treasurer, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services, the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and several conservation projects geared toward Illinois habitats, fish and birds.

Funding for the conservation projects was swept last year as part of a plan to restore deeper budget cuts enacted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich last year. But the funds are federally restricted and had to be restored.

Blagojevich also cut the executive officer’s budgets last year, particularly Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias. Both have said in the past that they thought these cuts were politically motivated.

The governor's office didn't seem inclined to sign the bill, however. A spokeswoman issued this statement by e-mail: “The state cannot afford additional spending during the current deteriorating economy. The state needs to find ways to save money right now, not spend it. The governor believes elected officials should be looking at ways to tighten their budgets —not increase them — during these tough economic times so that we can preserve the vital services we provide to Illinoisans.”

Sen. Donne Trotter, a Democrat from Chicago and chief budget negotiator, said he feels confident that the governor will change his mind about the cuts. Trotter said that the economic crisis and the need for federal funding would be two motivating factors for the governor to sign the bill into law.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mental health facilities closure on hold

By Hilary Russell

The decision whether to permanently close Howe Developmental Center and Tinley Park Mental Health Center in the Chicago suburbs has been postponed. Illinois Issues wrote about it in June 2008. The federal government decertified the facilities in 2007 when reports revealed that clients were unnecessarily drugged or restrained without medical justification.

Legislators on the bipartisan Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability decided that in the wake of Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment by the Illinois House, it was better to wait until a full Senate trial determined whether Blagojevich would be kicked out of office.

“In light of these developments,” said Sen. Jeffrey Schoenberg, reading from a draft report outlining the commission’s opinion on the closures, “given these extraordinary circumstances, the responsible action is to quarantine this transaction.”

The commission said it would make a decision within 60 days after the Senate impeachment trial is completed. The trial is scheduled to start January 26.

Nine panel members affirmed the decision, while one dissented. Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, said the state has waited long enough and has spent millions of dollars that could have been spread out to other facilities.

According to the draft, five people have died since October and at least one in December, alone, accounting for more than 25 deaths in the past few years.

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.

13 impeachable offenses

The Illinois House voted 114-1, with one voting "present," to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The move follows the recommendations of a 61-page report that lists 13 impeachable offenses. The special investigative committee used a "totality of circumstances" as the standard, alleging that the governor demonstrated a pattern of abusing his powers. (Or, click on the top item to see the final report.)

Here’s a quick summary of the allegations:
  1. He attempted to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat for campaign contributions or personal gain.
  2. He pressured the Tribune Company to fire members of the paper’s editorial staff that had been critical of the governor by threatening to withhold state funding.
  3. He tried to get campaign contributions for signing a bill into law that would give a percentage of casino profits to the horseracing industry.
  4. He [CORRECTION] schemed to get $500,000 campaign contribution from a state highway contractor in relation to an upcoming Illinois Tollway expansion.
  5. He withheld $8 million from Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago in an attempt to extort campaign contributions from a hospital executive.
  6. He appointed Ali Ata as the executive director of the Illinois Finance Authority in return for a $25,000 campaign contribution. Ata has pleaded guilty to criminal charges.
  7. He awarded multiple government contracts in exchange for campaign contributions.
  8. He traded state permits and authorizations for campaign contributions.
  9. He mishandled “efficiency initiatives” that consolidated functions of state agencies and advised them to violate the state Constitution and spending laws in order to comply with the initiatives.
  10. He expanded the state-sponsored Family Care health insurance program without legislative approval or funding.
  11. He ordered doses of European flu vaccine that the state didn’t need without federal approval. The doses were never used before they expired.
  12. He illegally imported prescription drugs from foreign countries through the I-SaveRx program.
  13. He violated state and federal law when hiring and firing some state employees.

We'll have much more soon. The governor's scheduled to speak in Chicago at 2 p.m., and the special Illinois Senate committee drafting rules for an impeachment trial could release a draft of rules this afternoon.

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.”

Draft impeachment report available

The full Illinois House is expected to vote Friday on whether to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich. A special committee charged with gathering evidence for potential impeachment released a 69-page draft report this morning, indicating the committee intends to recommend impeachment based on the “totality of evidence” presented for about a dozen offenses. (To see the report, visit the House committee's Web site and click on the top item: proposed report of the Special Investigative Committee.)

Rep. John Fritchey, a Chicago Democrat on the impeachment inquiry committee, said the proposed report has been vetted multiple times by committee members and that it was a fair and accurate representation of the evidence presented. “The findings of the report speak volumes as to what the bipartisan consensus and beliefs of the committee are.”

Republicans disagreed. Rep. Jim Durkin, a Western Springs Republican and minority spokesman for the committee, said he thought the report's release was premature. “I don’t understand the reasoning behind placing it into the public domain before the committee has finished their testimony or before committee [members] have actually had an opportunity to officially place it into evidence,” he said. As he said, he’s in the minority. And only House Speaker Michael Madigan and Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie can make that call.

The committee still plans to hear the testimony of former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris at 3 p.m. today. Members also expect to find out whether federal investigators will allow them to play four recorded conversations between Blagojevich and his inner circle, which is part of the criminal complaint against him.

The full House adjourned until 9 a.m. Friday.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Close to an impeachment report

Please welcome Hilary Russell, left, and Jamey Dunn, two new Public Affairs Reporting interns for Illinois Issues. This is their first time contributing to this blog.

The Illinois House could consider whether there is cause for impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich this Friday or Saturday, although a special investigative committee is still collecting evidence before it submits a report to the full chamber.

The House committee added another dimension to its rap sheet Wednesday afternoon by rehashing a confidential report that outlined problematic hiring and firing practices in the administration.

Get ready for a more circus-like atmosphere Thursday, when members will hear from U.S. Senate-designate Roland Burris.

Rep. Jim Durkin, the GOP spokesman for the committee, said he wants to hear specifics surrounding Burris’ appointment, including when he donated money to the governor’s political campaign. The committee subpoenaed the treasurer of Friends of Blagojevich. “He was served, and he stated he would not be able to have that information ready for us within the next few days," Durkin said. "I’m doubtful if he would have it completed by January 20." But the information could still be useful in a Senate trial, he added.

Committee members also are waiting for the final word on whether they will receive FBI recordings of Blagojevich’s conversations. They could find out Thursday afternoon; however, both Republicans and Democrats say they are confident that the case can proceed without them.

“As much as I think this information is probably critical, I’m looking at the fact that this governor has been under investigation since January of ’03,” said Rep. Suzanne Bassi, a Republican member of the investigation committee. “The executive inspector general has been looking at him in ‘04. We had problems with him. We knew that he was being investigated in ‘06 when he was reelected. We have all kinds of issues at this point He has been already cut off by the Homeland Security people. He’s cost us [some] $20 million because of his trials and tribulations. You guys, we are beating a dead horse here. For goodness sakes, let’s get moving on this.”

If the full House votes to impeach Blagojevich, then he undergoes a full trial in the Senate.