A special committee of the Illinois Legislature on Wednesday began reviewing evidence that may lead it to recommend the impeachment of the state's allegedly corrupt Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich. But Blagojevich's attorney is challenging the committee every step of the way, setting up what looks to be a very combative impeachment process.
Surrounded by cameras, Blagojevich's attorney, Ed Genson, walked into the ornate Illinois House committee hearing room in the state capitol. Genson, who is a renowned Chicago defense attorney known for his tough cross examinations and colorful courtroom antics, sarcastically said: "I'm really happy to be here." It was a preview of what may well be a vigorous defense of the governor.
Blagojevich was arrested last week on charges that among other things, he schemed to benefit from his power to appoint a U.S. senator.
The special House committee of inquiry into impeachment first moved to adopt the rules lawmakers will use to consider whether to recommend Blagojevich be impeached, and Genson immediately objected.
"In going over the rules and going over the statute and going over the constitution applicable to this proceeding, I find nothing, nothing in any of those places that talks about what is the basis, and what the basis for impeachment can be," Genson said. "I find nothing in any of those places regarding the standard of proof. And I would suggest on behalf of Rod Blagojevich that if we are going to hearing relative to these rules, that those two matters be addressed."
Illinois' Constitution does not adhere to the federal standard for impeachment — that of high crimes and misdemeanors; instead, it simply states that the Legislature can impeach a governor based on cause.
"We're not a court of law," says Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie, who chairs the special impeachment committee. "We're not quite a grand jury. We're not bound by specific rules of evidence."
Other committee members added that the goal of the impeachment inquiry is not to determine whether Blagojevich committed crimes in office. Rather, the inquiry will look at whether he has abused his authority and betrayed the public trust; if so, should he be removed from office?
"The office of governor does not belong to Rod Blagojevich," says Republican state Rep. Bill Black. "And it does not belong to the Illinois Democratic Party. It belongs to the people of Illinois. By all accounts, the people have lost confidence in Gov. Rod Blagojevich."
Comments like these have led to another objection by Genson, who asked that Black and a couple of other members of the committee be recused, or removed.
"A number of people on this committee expressed views that made it perfectly clear that they've already made up their mind in this case," Genson said. "They stated an opinion that basically suggested that they could not be fair."
Currie responded that the panel will be fair, but she added that they are not jurors and are not forbidden to express their opinions.
Genson objected to other matters, too, and at times the exchanges got testy. He complained that the committee gave the governor too little notice of this hearing, and Genson argued that it is illegal for the committee to use material from the federal government's wiretaps of the governor's conversations. Currie responded that the legislative body is not bound by the same rules as courts of law and that it can use those potentially damning conversations.
Across the street from the state capitol, the Illinois Supreme Court decided it will not take up a request from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan that Blagojevich be declared unfit to hold office.
The governor himself made brief comments to reporters Wednesday morning before taking a jog through his North Side Chicago neighborhood, saying he is dying to talk the people of Illinois and tell his side of the story. That opportunity may happen later Wednesday or Thursday.
Blagojevich then quoted Elvis, telling reporters to "hang loose."