Brushing aside the governor’s pleas of innocence, the Illinois Senate unanimously voted Thursday to remove Rod R. Blagojevich and impose a “political death penalty” that bars him from ever holding public office in the state.
The action came after a four-day impeachment trial on allegations that the Democrat had abused his power -- trying, among other things, to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder.
During several hours of deliberations, senator after senator stood up to criticize Blagojevich, the first chief executive in Illinois’ long history of political corruption to be impeached and convicted.
“He reminded us today in real detail that he is an unusually good liar,” Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy said. “We bent over backward to make sure that this process was fair.”
After the 59-0 vote, Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn signed the oath of office and became the state’s 41st governor. Among the problems awaiting him is a budget deficit of as much as $5 billion.
Blagojevich had ignored the Senate impeachment trial all week to take his case to the nation through TV talk shows. But Thursday, he came to the Capitol to offer a sprawling, passionate defense.
Alternately praising and upbraiding those who would decide his fate, Blagojevich urged the senators during a 47-minute speech not to remove him from office, saying he had “never, ever intended to violate the law.”
“There hasn’t been a single piece of information that proves any wrongdoing,” said Blagojevich, who was arrested at his Chicago home Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges. “How can you throw a governor out of office with insufficient and incomplete evidence?”
Blagojevich also warned senators against setting a “dangerous precedent” that would thwart the will of an electorate that twice had voted for him. “Imagine what future governors will face if I’m thrown out of office for this,” Blagojevich said.
But lawmakers were unmoved, saying the governor had violated the public trust and paralyzed government.
Republican state Sen. Kirk Dillard said Blagojevich was “inept, he’s corrupt, he’s cost the state millions of dollars.”
House prosecutor David Ellis attacked Blagojevich’s speech, saying in a short rebuttal that “when the camera’s on, the governor is for the little guy, the little people. When the camera’s off, what are his priorities?”
Ellis pointed behind him to a poster board with transcripts of Blagojevich’s wiretapped phone conversations, often laced with obscenities.
In the first part of his closing argument -- before Blagojevich addressed the Senate -- Ellis said that “every decision this governor made was based on one of three criteria: the governor’s legal situation, his personal situation and his political situation.”
As an example, he cited the criminal filing in which Blagojevich was charged with conspiring to sell Obama’s Senate seat. “ ‘It’s a . . . valuable thing. You just don’t give it away for nothing,’ ” Ellis quoted Blagojevich as saying.
“The governor,” Ellis said, “wanted to make a trade.”
The prosecutor also discussed federal allegations that Blagojevich had tried to pressure Tribune Co. -- the parent company of the Los Angeles Times -- to fire Chicago Tribune editorial writers in exchange for state money to help with the sale of the Chicago Cubs.
Ellis said Blagojevich had 15 conversations with his former chief of staff, John Harris, in a month, repeatedly directing Harris to talk to high-ranking Tribune Co. executives.
There would be no money from the state to help with the sale of the Cubs, Ellis said, unless members of the editorial board were fired.
“The governor knew what he was doing was harmful,” Ellis said.
Ellis then detailed three alleged schemes in which Blagojevich tried to raise campaign cash in return for official state action in hopes of stockpiling $2.5 million in his campaign fund before a new ethics law took effect Jan. 1.
One involved an $8-million grant to Children’s Memorial Hospital that authorities said Blagojevich wanted to trade for a $50,000 campaign contribution.
Another was reportedly a plan to trade his signature on a horse racing impact fee bill for a campaign contribution from a track owner.
The third alleged scheme was a $1.8-billion tollway project that Blagojevich apparently wanted to fetch a $500,000 campaign contribution.
Ellis urged the senators to convict Blagojevich, saying the evidence showed that throughout his tenure, the governor had abused his power in order to benefit himself.
“The people of this state deserve so much better,” Ellis said quietly, concluding the first part of his closing argument. “Gov. Blagojevich should be removed from office.”
When it was his turn to speak, Blagojevich decried a “rush to judgment.”
“I’m here to talk to you, to appeal to you, to your sense of fairness,” Blagojevich told senators. As an example of his attempts to help the people of Illinois, Blagojevich cited his decision to try to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada.
“If you’re impeaching me,” he said, “then we need to impeach the governors of Wisconsin, of Kansas, of Vermont” because they too were interested in his Canadian drug plan.
Blagojevich said officials also should “reach into the United States Senate and remove John McCain and Ted Kennedy” because they supported the idea at the time.
“If you’re going to get rid of me,” Blagojevich said, “why do they get to stay in office?”
At times the governor rambled. He recalled being a rookie congressman and meeting Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), whom he noted had been married to actress Elizabeth Taylor. Warner mistook Blagojevich for a staff member and asked him to fetch a coffee, the governor recalled.
Blagojevich also seemed to be trying to patch up a bad personal relationship. He noted that he had struggled more with lawmakers in the House and traditionally found more support in the Senate.
“I know we’ve had some ups and downs,” Blagojevich said to senators. “But we’ve also had some chances to work together.
“The ends were moral,” Blagojevich said, and the means were legal.
“I know my style sometimes -- I know,” Blagojevich said. “But I want you to know where I come from. I have been blessed to live the American Dream.”
James Janega of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Rod R. Blagojevich
Age: 52. Born Dec. 10, 1956
Family: Wife, Patricia; two daughters
Education: Northwestern University, graduated 1979; Pepperdine University, law degree, 1983.
Experience: Elected Illinois governor, 2002; reelected, 2006; ousted by state Senate, 2009. Served in U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois’ 5th District, 1997-2003. Served in Illinois House from Chicago’s North Side, 1993-97. Assistant Cook County state’s attorney, prosecuting criminal cases.
Quote: “I don’t care whether you tape me privately or publicly.
I can tell you that whatever I say is always lawful.”
Source: Associated Press