In a historic display of anger and frustration, the Illinois House voted Friday to impeach disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich and send him to trial in the Senate with the aim of removing the state's 40th chief executive from public office forever.
The governor's Dec. 9 arrest on corruption charges was the trigger, but lawmakers unloaded six years of grievances in a swift and overwhelming 114-1 vote. Their action made the two-term Democrat the first governor to be impeached in state history.Representatives cast aside Blagojevich's declarations of innocence, saying there was no place in government for a man who ran roughshod over the legislature, wasted millions of dollars in state money and sought to sell everything from state contracts to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
"It's our duty to clean up the mess and to stop the freak show which has become Illinois government," said Rep. Jack Franks (D-Marengo), a longtime Blagojevich critic.
Blagojevich, who has resisted calls for his resignation from state and national leaders, including Obama, was jogging near his Northwest Side home when lawmakers voted.
Hours later he held a news conference at his Chicago office, where he sounded the populist theme that has been his hallmark since being elected in 2002 on a promise to reform Illinois' culture of corruption. He predicted his exoneration and blamed House lawmakers for siding with lobbyists and special interests who want him tossed out because he expanded health care and other programs.
"I am not at all surprised by it," Blagojevich said at the James R. Thompson Center, flanked by supporters he said were helped by his programs. He said he merely found "creative ways" to use his power to "get real things done for people who rely on us."
"And in many cases, the things we did for people have literally saved lives," he said. "I don't believe those are impeachable offenses. So we are going to move forward, and I am going to continue to fight every step of the way. Let me reassert to all of you once more that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing."
Blagojevich further inflamed Illinois' political scene last week by naming former Atty. Gen. Roland Burris as Obama's successor -- an appointment that remains a matter of dispute. The action was cited by House members for expediting their two-week investigation by an impeachment committee.
The committee's final report and recommendation Thursday was the basis for a multicount impeachment resolution. In voting, lawmakers expressed sadness but also hope that their actions could help revive a state government long at a standstill over their battles with a governor they viewed as untrustworthy and imperial. The lone "no" vote and one "present" vote were cast by Chicago Democratic lawmakers who are not returning to the legislature.
The House is scheduled to revote its impeachment of Blagojevich on Wednesday as a technical matter when the new General Assembly is sworn in to reflect the results of the Nov. 4 election. That sets the stage for the first impeachment trial in the state Senate in more than 175 years, since senators failed to convict an Illinois Supreme Court justice accused of profiting from politically related court appointments.
As part of the inauguration of the new legislature, Blagojevich is constitutionally required to preside over the swearing-in of senators -- in essence overseeing the lawmakers who will act as his judge and jury. Incoming Senate President John Cullerton (D-Chicago) said the governor's aides have assured Blagojevich will attend, and Cullerton said he expects to serve the governor with formal notice of his impeachment trial that day.
The trial is expected to begin Jan. 26, Cullerton said.
It would take the votes of 40 of the 59-member Illinois Senate to convict Blagojevich and remove him from office. If they convict, senators could impose a political death penalty -- requiring the same 40 votes to prevent him from holding any future state office. The House impeachment vote called for all three penalties: conviction, removal and disqualification from future state office.
The impeachment marked an extraordinary chapter for a state already encumbered with an infamous lineup of politicians accused of corruption, convicted of crimes and shipped to prison, including Blagojevich's predecessor, Republican George Ryan, who is in a federal penitentiary.
Blagojevich became the state's first Democratic chief executive in a quarter-century in 2003, and he won reelection in 2006 with a voracious fundraising machine against a Republican Party still finding its way after Ryan's corruption conviction. But it was a Democratic-led House that impeached Blagojevich and a Democratic-controlled Senate that will try him.
The impeachment resolution cited abuses of power that included political hiring, using a clout-laden firm that was supposed to save the state money but ended up mishandling it, refusing public access to documents and authorizing the purchase of foreign flu vaccines that could not legally be imported.
But it included the criminal charges against Blagojevich, which primarily involved allegations he sought to squeeze campaign dollars in exchange for official acts, such as signing a bill or providing reimbursement to a children's hospital. The federal charges contend he based the size of a tollway project on how much money he could wring from a highway construction firm and tried to tie an offer of assistance to the Tribune Co. for the sale of Wrigley Field to the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers.
House Majority Leader Barbara Currie, the Chicago Democrat who headed a panel that recommended Blagojevich's impeachment a day earlier, said lawmakers should reject the remarks of Ed Genson, the governor's well-known criminal defense lawyer. Genson contended that Blagojevich's remarks on secret recordings obtained by federal agents were just "talk."
Currie said: "But if that talk reflects the governor's view that the plums of government are his to distribute, not because they are in the public interest, but because doling them out to the right individuals will fill his campaign coffers or lead to jobs and salaries for himself and his wife, that to me is the definition of betrayal of the public trusts."
Only two Republicans spoke against Blagojevich for the bulk of the nearly 90-minute debate, a strategy GOP leaders said was aimed at having Democratic lawmakers attack the Democratic governor.
House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego contended that Blagojevich's activities have made Illinois the "laughingstock of the country and, in fact, the world" on newscasts and in jokes on late-night television.
"You ought to be angry," Cross said. "You ought to be disgusted. You ought to be mad as hell, because this is our state."
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All in a day's crisis
9 a.m.: The Illinois House begins debating whether to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
About 10:20: The House votes 114-1 for impeachment. RELATED STORY, PAGE 11
About 11:10: Blagojevich finishes jogging and talks with reporters.
About 12:45 p.m.: Illinois Supreme Court says Roland Burris doesn't need Secretary of State Jesse White's signature to make the Senate appointment by Blagojevich valid. MORE, PAGE 9
About 2:10: Blagojevich holds defiant news conference where he denies wrongdoing, quotes Tennyson. RELATED STORIES, PAGE 8
About 3: Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn praises House vote, calls on Blagojevich to resign.
3:30: Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois says Burris still needs White's signature.
About 5: Burris' lawyers say they will take their case to federal court in Washington if Senate leaders don't agree to seat him.
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