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Blagojevich impeachment proceedings will begin

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 14, 2008 - The Illinois House decided on Monday to begin impeachment proceedings against Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the wake of federal charges of trying to gain money or favors in exchange for choosing a U.S. senator to replace President-elect Barack Obama. Twelve Democrats and nine Republicans will be chosen for a panel that will consider the issue. 

There was no word Monday on when the Illinois Supreme Court may act on a move to have the governor declared unfit to hold office.

Our earlier story:

The big political question over the weekend was whether Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich would step aside before the state's lawmakers got to Springfield to impeach him. 

The speculation was put to rest by the embattled governor Monday morning -- at least temporarily -- when he told reporters in Chicago that he was headed to work there to sign a bill giving filmmakers tax credits for coming to the state. Then, a few hours later, House Speaker Michael Madigan announced formation of a committee to begin impeachment proceedings.

Madigan told a news conference he had been looking into the possibility of impeachment for about a year during his struggle with Blagojevich over the possible abuse of power. Last week's arrest on charges of corruption in office spurred him to take action.

"We will proceed without delay," Madigan said Monday.

"We have given the governor six days to resign."

Hints had surfaced Sunday that Blagojevich might be poised to announce his resignation, even as the legislature prepared for a special session to take matters into their own hands.

Meanwhile, there were reports Monday that Blagojevich would consider signing a bill that would remove his power to appoint a new U.S. senator and instead put the seat up for a popular vote.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, said her office has heard that Blagojevich might make an announcement Monday that he would "step aside."

"I don't know if that means he will resign or take another option that is provided under the Illinois constitution where he can voluntarily recognize that there is a serious impediment to his ability to carry out his duties, and therefore temporarily remove himself," Madigan said.

Such action would allow the governor to keep his salary, she said.

Blagojevich's concerns about his personal finances are documented in the FBI's surveillance of his political dealings, plus he is facing mounting legal defense fees.

Blagojevich has become a media sensation -- some would say, spectacle -- since his arrest early Tuesday morning for what U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald dubbed a "political corruption spree." Among the most notable allegations in the 76-page FBI affidavit that outlined "pay-to-play" allegations against the governor were: attempts to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, trying to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired and demanding a kickback from a Chicago children's hospital for $8 million of state funds.

Madigan took the unprecedented step on Friday of asking the state Supreme Court to remove Blagojevich from power, contending that the federal investigation prevents him from fulfilling his duties to the state. At the least, she argued, Blagojevich should be barred from appointing Obama's Senate successor.

Madigan is the daughter of House Speaker Madigan who has a history of butting heads with Blagojevich. Asked by "Meet the Press" host David Gregory about suggestions that she was interested in Obama's Senate seat for herself, Madigan said she wasn't thinking about it.

Quinn, who repeated his assertion that he hasn't talked to Blagojevich since August 2007, again called on the governor to resign. He said he favors appointing a temporary replacement for Obama until a special election can be held.

"I'm for voters deciding who their senator would be,'' Quinn said.

Legislative Options

On Monday, state lawmakers will begin debating their options: taking away Blagojevich's appointment power, calling a special election for the Senate seat, and possibly impeachment, which would clear the way for Quinn to become governor. The house was scheduled to begin work at 3 p.m., followed by the Senate at 5 p.m.

"I would tell people to expect just about anything. A lot of buzz will be members pushing to move forward on impeachment right away,'' said Cindi Canary, director of the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a state watchdog group.

Canary said that House Speaker Madigan has said little about his intentions, and some House Democrats have urged prudence to avoid setting precedents that could be used inappropriately in later cases.

Political scientist Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois, predicts the lawmakers will try to act quickly, but he warns that any real effect will take time. As long as Blagojevich remains as governor he can stall legislation with his veto power and an impeachment would take several months.

"What will go on Monday is for consumption by the political audience -- showing the citizens of Illinois that their elected officials are trying to act. But there are limits on what they can do. He still has all the power and authority, and it's going to take time to take it away from him,'' said Redfield, who heads the Sunshine Project, which works to increase public awareness of the role of money in Illinois politics.

Canary expects that lawmakers will end up working on several avenues at once, even as the Supreme Court deliberates on the Madigan petition.

"What you'll see is a lot of people trying to throw as much mud at the wall as they can to see what sticks,'' she said.

Which is the Fastest Train?

On Monday, the Illinois Capitol may resemble a rail yard with several trains leaving for the same destination. Trouble is, the trains are loaded down with freight, and Blagojevich can still throw switches on the tracks.

Some lawmakers argue that the impeachment train would be the quickest.

"I don't think anyone knows that that's true. The fact is, we've never done an impeachment,'' Canary said.

But there's always a first time, and lawmakers seem to be in an impeachment mood. A group of House Democrats that includes Rep. John Fritchey of Chicago and Rep. Thomas Holbrook of Belleville are pushing for impeachment of the governor rather than a special election to fill the Senate seat.

"Blagojevich needs to resign,'' said Holbrook, who represents the 113th District. "Everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. However, this is going to cause even further gridlock. We have many challenges already in the state of Illinois. If he does not resign, we need to move ahead quickly with impeachment procedures.''

Holbrook estimated that impeachment of the governor could take 60 to 90 days, which he says would be quicker and less costly than a special election to fill Obama's Senate seat.

"Impeachment would play out faster, and the citizens of Illinois wouldn't have a $50 million price tag,'' Holbrook said. "But I will hear the arguments Monday.''

House Republicans, in the meantime, have banded together to push for the formation of a special committee to begin determining whether there is cause for impeachment.

Rep. Ron Stephens, a Republican from Highland, said the best remedy would be for Blagojevich to resign, but he doesn't expect that to happen easily.

"Having known him for almost 15 years now, I don't think it's in his nature,'' said Stephens, who represents the 102nd District.

Stephens pointed to the arrogance of the governor in the face of the FBI investigation.

"My understanding is he clearly conspired to break the law on the phone, when he should have known that he was being taped. That was the shocking thing,'' Stephens said.

To Resign or Not to Resign – That is the Question

From the president-elect on down, Blagojevich is under nearly unanimous pressure to resign. Though the governor has, in fact, not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, the court of public opinion is another matter. On "Saturday Night Live," Jason Sudeikis portrayed him as a foul-mouth Chicago gangster with bad hair trying to shake down a Senate committee.

But Redfield said that his governorship remains Blagojevich's best leverage.

"All he has left to negotiate with the federal prosecutor, as far as I can tell, is his office," Redfield said.

He predicts the Supreme Court will delay acting on Madigan's petition in the hopes that the matter will be resolved in other avenues.

Blagojevich, who was elected to a second term in 2006, was already unpopular with state residents before his arrest Tuesday. He succeeded scandal-plagued Republican Gov. George Ryan, who is serving a federal prison term for fraud and racketeering.

An October 2008 survey of registered voters by the Chicago Tribune found that only 13 percent approved of Blagojevich's job performance, with 71 percent disapproving. Three-fourths of those polled said the governor didn't keep his campaign promises to end corruption in state hiring, contracts and appointments.

John Harris, the governor's chief of staff who was also arrested, resigned on Friday with his attorney saying it "was the right thing to do." Also implicated in the corruption charges is his wife Patricia Blagojevich, the daughter of a powerful Chicago alderman, Richard Mell.

Redfield said it will be interesting to watch Blagojevich's supporters in the legislature, such as Democrat Jay Hoffman of Collinsville.

"I think he probably will look for ways to distance himself from the situation,'' Redfield said.

He speculated that Hoffman and other supporters might try to find a positive role to play, such as working to convince the governor to resign.

Changing a Culture

Interest in the unfolding scandal has shone an intense public spotlight on the Land of Lincoln, something not lost on Illinois lawmakers.

"On Monday, if you come to Springfield and just count the news trucks around the capital, they're going to set an all-time record,'' Stephens predicted.

Stephens said he believes there is a culture of corruption in the state that has prevailed for generations, and he notes that it is bipartisan.

"Have we reached an all-time low? Is this going to be the end of it? Anytime there is power vested in an individual there will be the temptation of corruption,'' Stephens said. "Our job in Illinois is to clean that up, to take a look at those associations.''

Stephens said that often the corruption is just below the surface and difficult to get at. He pointed to a new "pay-for-play" law that will take effect in January that will limit campaign contributions from state contractors. It is ironic, he said, that Blagojevich seemed to be in a rush to make deals before the stricter limits were in place.

Redfield said that in Illinois the dominant political culture has tended to emphasize politics as a job or profession, rather than public service.

"It's hard to unlearn political culture. If you're a businessman in the city of Chicago, and your father paid off the alderman to get a zoning permit, and you inherit the business, then you pay off the alderman to get a zoning permit,'' he said.

He said that while other states have "progressed" from the early years of big-city machine politics, that hasn't been the case in Illinois.

In defense of his home state at a press conference last week, Obama said that Illinois has both the right kind and wrong kind of politicians, just as in other states.

"There are two views of politics,'' Obama said. "There's a view of politics that says you go into this for sacrifice and public service, and then there's a view of politics that says this is business, and you're wheeling and dealing and what's in it for me.''

Obama said his campaign is proof that a politician can succeed by playing by the rules.

Redfield said the new "pay-for-play" bill, while modest, is a step in the right direction.

"It's the first time in modern Illinois political history that we've put limits on anything involving giving money," he said.

Canary is optimistic that the scandal will bring momentum for reforms in the state.

"It becomes increasingly hard for the political establishment to look people in the eye and say we don't need regulation,'' she said.

She suggests three areas of reform that could be quickly addressed: putting reasonable limits on campaign contributions, putting teeth in the state's lobbying law that she says lacks enforcement and establishing an online portal where disclosure reports are assembled and available for review by the public.

Canary said Illinoisans should not let skepticism get in the way of hope for reform.

"We've been duped before, and we'll be duped again, but we need to believe in the possible. This is 'our' system, it's not 'their' system,'' she said. "You don't sit at the kitchen table and let your family go to hell, and it's kind of the same thing. Democracy is hard work. You don't make one reform and walk away and say, 'Done.' It requires vigilance and commitment. As citizens we have to do our share, as well."

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