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House panel unanimously approves report accusing Gov. Rod Blagojevich of wide range of offenses
SPRINGFIELD — Paving the way for an unprecedented House vote Friday to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a legislative panel unanimously approved a scathing report accusing the two-term Democrat of a wide array of offenses, including criminal corruption and wasting taxpayer money.
Thursday's 21-0 vote for impeachment by the special House Investigation Committee concluded the panel's work almost a month to the day after Blagojevich's Dec. 9 arrest at his home on federal charges that he used the governor's office to try to enrich himself personally and politically.
A House vote in favor of impeachment—as predicted by Speaker Michael Madigan—would be the first ever for an Illinois governor and would send the issue to the Senate for a trial.
The panel's action was another step toward ending the nearly six years of government turmoil and paralysis that has marked Blagojevich's reign, with a distrusted Democratic governor battling a fractured Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
Blagojevich has rejected nearly universal calls for his resignation. A statement attributed only to his press office said the governor had viewed the panel's actions as a "foregone conclusion." It said Blagojevich looked forward to a trial in the Senate, presided by the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, where "the governor believes the outcome will be much different."
Blagojevich's aides said he was working in his downtown Chicago office and did not monitor the committee's actions or the speeches—mixing anger with melancholy—that accompanied the votes of the panel's members.
"This is a sad day here in the state of Illinois," said Rep. Mary Flowers (D- Chicago). "It's unfortunate that it had to get to this. I would have appreciated if the governor could have just merely stepped aside so we would not have been made the laughingstock of the country. This today is about the restoration of the power back to we the people of the state of Illinois."
House members are expected to send the Senate on Friday a 13-point article of impeachment—a political form of an indictment—alleging Blagojevich has "abused the power of his office" on matters that include federal corruption charges against him, issues regarding his conduct in approving a major expansion of health care without legislative approval and questionable hiring practices that prompted a federal investigation.
"Under the totality of the evidence, some or all of these acts of the governor constitute a pattern of abuse of power," according to the impeachment resolution before the House. "This abuse of power by Rod R. Blagojevich warrants his impeachment and trial, removal from office as governor and disqualification to hold any public office of this state in the future."
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who would assume the duties of governor if the Senate convicted Blagojevich of the impeachment charges and decided to remove him, said he was hopeful that the governor would understand his days in office are numbered and would resign.
"I think, given the overwhelming evidence, it was pretty clear to anyone that this is what the people of Illinois wanted," Quinn said of the panel's recommendation.
The impeachment resolution that the House will consider was accompanied by an extensive report—69 pages in draft form—reflecting the sentiments of the House panel that began looking into impeachment proceedings against the governor Dec. 16, a week after his arrest.
The impeachment article includes the allegations contained in the federal criminal complaint against Blagojevich—that the governor sought to sell the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama and that he conditioned awarding financial assistance to the Tribune Co. in the sale of Wrigley Field on the firing of members of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board.
Other elements of the federal charges included in the impeachment resolution are allegations that Blagojevich tried to squeeze campaign donations from a horse-racing official, a highway contractor, a children's hospital executive and others in exchange for beneficial treatment by the state.
But the impeachment article goes beyond the federal charges to include what lawmakers called Blagojevich's "utter disregard" for the legislative branch of government in expanding health-care programs. "I think the House will vote in favor of impeachment," said Madigan, the Southwest Side Democrat who also heads the Democratic Party of Illinois.
Although Madigan has been Blagojevich's chief legislative antagonist, the House speaker served as co-chairman of the governor's 2006 re-election campaign. But following the impeachment panel's vote, Madigan acknowledged that he had "regrets" about the earlier support. "We didn't know the intensity of the federal inquiry," he said.
A vote of 60 of the 118 members of the Illinois House on the impeachment resolution sends the matter to the Senate for trial, where 40 of its 59 members must vote to convict Blagojevich to remove him from office.
Because a new General Assembly will be inaugurated Wednesday to reflect the outcome of the Nov. 4 elections, Madigan said newly sworn-in House members will re-vote that day on the impeachment resolution to formally send it to the Senate for trial.
Anticipating a House vote to send the matter to trial in the Senate, the statement from the governor's office said Blagojevich believed the House "impeachment proceedings were flawed, biased and did not follow the rules of law" and never gave his attorneys "the chance to put on any kind of defense."
"In all," the statement said, "the governor's rights to due process were deprived."
But panel members in their report said Blagojevich chose not to appear before the committee to answer questions. Though the right against self-incrimination applies to criminal trials, the report said members could hold Blagojevich's refusal to appear against him in regard to impeachment.
Members of the panel opted to move ahead with their recommendation even though they did not hear edited recordings of Blagojevich obtained by federal agents in their investigation of the governor. Though U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald asked a federal judge to release the tapes to the panel, the move was fought by Blagojevich's attorneys and a decision was put off until at least Jan. 23. If the tapes are released, they could become part of a Senate trial.
Tribune reporter Ashley Rueff contributed to this report.