- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | The Illinois Senate on Thursday unanimously voted to oust Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich from office and bar him from ever holding a state post again, ignoring the Democrat who, near tears at one point, made a last-ditch appeal to prove that he had not tried to sell President Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder.

The chamber erupted into applause as the proceedings ended.

“We have this thing called impeachment, and it’s bleeping golden and we’ve used it the right way,” state Sen. James Meeks, Chicago Democrat, said during the debate, a mocking reference to the governor´s repeated use of foul language on FBI wiretaps.

Mr. Blagojevich, who had already boxed up his belongings at the governor’s executive mansion, was immediately removed from office and replaced minutes after the vote by Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn, 60, a fellow Democrat.

The governor’s ouster was the eighth in U.S. history and the first since 1988; no other Illinois governor had been impeached, let alone convicted in a Senate trial.

But the governor struck a defiant chord Thursday night, vowing to reporters outside his Chicago home to “keep fighting to clear my name.”

“I love the people of Illinois today more than I ever have before,” he said, before making a mordant joke about Chicago’s corrupt reputation, telling a boy in the crowd: “I love you, man. You know, this is Chicago. You can vote for me. You’re old enough.”

The Senate voted 59-0, with all 37 Democrats voting to remove Mr. Blagojevich for abuses of power.

Mr. Blagojevich skipped most of the impeachment tribunal but fought for his political life on Thursday when he appeared for the first time to defend himself. Charging that his Senate accusers had failed to prove that he broke the law, the governor said the case against him was politically motivated and had been flawed from the start.

“How can you throw a governor out of office on a criminal complaint and you haven’t been able to show or prove any criminal activity?” he asked from the Senate floor, his hair hanging into his eyes. “How can you throw a governor out of office who is clamoring and begging and pleading with you to give him a chance to bring witnesses in, to prove his innocence?”

Impeachment prosecutor David Ellis said the governor’s own words prove “a pattern of abuse of power.”

“Every decision this governor made was based on one of three criteria: his legal situation, his personal situation and his political situation,” Mr. Ellis said. “The people of this state deserve so much better. The governor should be removed from office.”

According to a 76-page FBI affidavit filed when he was arrested Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges, the 52-year-old Mr. Blagojevich engaged in a lengthy pattern of pay-to-play politics, trading campaign donations for political favors and trying to swap his power to pick Mr. Obama’s replacement for a Cabinet post, an ambassadorship or a high-paying job for himself and his wife.

On the FBI tapes, the governor is captured saying: “I’ve got this thing and it’s [expletive] golden” and “I want to make money,” according to the affidavit.

The expulsion was a foregone conclusion, and Democratic senators seemed joyous to see him kicked out of office, and a tad bitter, too. Republicans were also happy, and equally angry.

“He failed the test of character. He is beneath the dignity of the state of Illinois. He is no longer worthy to be our governor,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from suburban Chicago.

Throughout the evening, reminders came of Mr. Blagojevich’s removal: his name and picture are no longer on the state’s official Web site and a photo portrait was removed from the entry to the state Capitol. The new governor also canceled Mr. Blagojevich’s security detail, contrary to the custom of giving such a team to a former governor for one year to help transition him back to private life.

Mr. Blagojevich was impeached in the House on Jan. 9 for abuse of power.

The 13 accusations included charges that he sought to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Mr. Obama; plotted to give financial assistance to the Tribune Co. only if members of the Chicago Tribune editorial board were fired; awarded state contracts or permits in exchange for campaign contributions; and violated hiring and firing laws.

The scandal’s effects touched the White House, as Mr. Obama was forced to look into the matter, later issuing a report concluding that no one in his inner circle had done anything wrong, although his chief of staff, former U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, acknowledged talking with Mr. Blagojevich about the Senate seat.

The new president issued a statement Thursday night saying the removal of Mr. Blagojevich “ends a painful episode for Illinois” that had crippled the state because of “a crisis of leadership. Now that cloud has lifted.”

The governor said in his closing statement that the trial had been fatally flawed, restricting him from calling witnesses that may be involved in an expected criminal trial.

“I wanted to be able to bring in witnesses from Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, to [U.S.] Senator Dick Durbin, to Senator Harry Reid to [Sen.] Bob Menendez - every single person connected with any conversation I may have had in relation to picking a United States senator,” he said.

Even though the parameters for impeachment tribunals differ greatly from those governing criminal trials - a fact prosecutors repeatedly pointed out - Mr. Blagojevich said that “simple justice” should still be paramount and that the accused should still have all means available to defend himself.

“Whether it’s schoolyard justice when one kid hits another, but the kid that hit him wasn’t the one who did it and he’s got other boys he’d like to have tell the teacher he didn’t do it, whether it’s that or whether it’s an impeachment process where you are seeking to remove a governor who was twice elected by the people, I think fundamental fairness, fundamental justice, natural law and constitutional rights suggest I should be able to bring witnesses in to say I didn’t do the things they said I did,” he said.

The trial featured the first airing of the FBI tapes, played on the second day.

The prosecution contended that the four tapes showed Mr. Blagojevich improperly pressuring John Johnston, owner of two Chicago-area harness-racing tracks, to donate money by the end of 2008, when a new ethics law would take effect and restrict donations. Prosecutors said the governor threatened not to sign legislation giving tracks a portion of casino-generated revenue unless he got the donation.

But Mr. Blagojevich said the tapes showed nothing of the kind.

“Take those four tapes as they are, and you will, I believe, in fairness recognize and acknowledge, those are conversations relating to the things all of us in politics do in order to run campaigns and try to win elections,” he said.

To the senators, he added: “You guys are in politics. You know what we have to do to go out and run, and run elections.”

Mr. Blagojevich boycotted the opening of his Senate trial, instead embarking on a media blitz in New York City that took him to at least a dozen broadcast shows, from “The View” to “Larry King Live.”

At every stop, he decried the process, insisted that quotes in the FBI affidavit were taken out of context and demanded to play hours and hours of audiotapes - every minute, if possible.

“All the conversations, warts and all, ought to be heard. This is not Richard Nixon and Watergate trying to keep the tapes from being heard. I want all the evidence heard,” Mr. Blagojevich said.

Mr. Ellis countered that the governor refused to take questions from senators after his statement and had not addressed the most important elements of the affidavit or the impeachment report from the Illinois House.

“He talked more about the evidence with Barbara Walters on ‘The View’ than he did here in this chamber today,” the prosecutor said Thursday.

The governor used just 47 of the allotted 90 minutes in his closing statement, speaking without notes from a podium just in front of the seated Illinois Supreme Court chief justice, and talking mostly about the smaller charges and his hardscrabble history.

Some senators leaned forward in their tall leather chairs with their knuckles on their chins; others reclined under the crystal chandeliers in the ornate Senate chamber, packed with reporters and spectators.

“I want to apologize to you for what happened, but I can’t because I don’t think - because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said as he concluded his remarks. He then left the podium, smiled and winked at reporters as he passed the press box, and headed back home to Chicago. He told reporters that he planned to go for a jog.

Mr. Blagojevich’s travails are not over. Federal prosecutors are expected to bring a corruption indictment against him by April, after which a trial date will be set.

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