The lead prosecutor in Illinois' historic impeachment trial urged the state Senate on Monday to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office for crimes against the public while the governor spent the day in New York, lashing out at his accusers on national television.
Blagojevich was a guest on national TV shows from morning until night -- including sharing the couch with the women of ABC's "The View" -- to plead his case that lawmakers were unfairly throwing him out of office.At the Statehouse, prosecutor David Ellis used his opening statement to directly challenge Blagojevich's televised complaints that the political trial was rigged, saying the covert recordings by federal investigators and evidence of the governor's repeated abuse of power were all they needed to convict and remove the governor.
"We will ask you to convict Gov. Blagojevich because of his own words, not those of anybody else," said Ellis, who was appointed by House lawmakers after they impeached Blagojevich. "We are holding him accountable for things that he said and he did."
While the Senate noted for the record that neither the governor nor his representatives were there, the talk-show hosts he sought to woo even questioned why he wasn't in Springfield.
An exasperated Barbara Walters asked Blagojevich whether he was "wasting time" on TV by refusing to acknowledge the accuracy of secret recordings of him allegedly trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama as part of an "[expletive] golden" opportunity.
"I can't confirm or deny anything when I haven't had a chance to hear all the tapes," Blagojevich said. "Under no circumstances was I trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Under no circumstances did I break any laws, and what I'm looking forward to is an opportunity to make my case."
Blagojevich used his TV time to say he had considered talk-show host Oprah Winfrey to fill the Senate vacancy left by the election of Obama as president, but feared naming her would look like a gimmick. Winfrey said on Sirius XM radio that she was "pretty amused" by the governor's comment but was "just not interested."
In Springfield, Ellis said the covert recordings of Blagojevich, obtained by federal agents, would provide the crux of the case against the governor, who the prosecutor said "repeatedly and utterly abused the powers and privileges of his office."
Ellis said an affidavit of those recordings, filed with a federal criminal complaint that led to the governor's arrest Dec. 9, would show senators, in Blagojevich's own words, that "the governor put up his office for sale."
Senators expect to hear Tuesday a select segment of four covert recordings of the governor that federal and House prosecutors have said will allegedly show Blagojevich trying to shake down campaign donations from a horse-racing industry official in exchange for signing a bill to divert casino gambling revenues to horse tracks.
Those recordings -- totaling about six minutes -- are expected to be accompanied by the testimony of Daniel Cain, the FBI special agent who wrote the affidavit. The playing of the recordings and limited testimony by Cain in the Senate impeachment trial were approved by U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald in an unusual move because federal prosecutors had asked lawmakers to stay away from the criminal case while their investigation against the governor continues.
Blagojevich, appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Monday night, said a Senate vote to remove him from office, likely only days away, was a "fait accompli." He and his lawyers have declined to mount a defense in what he alleges is a "witch hunt."
"But I'm a big boy, and I'll get over it," Blagojevich said.
Ellis dismissed Blagojevich's complaints that he could not call witnesses such as Rahm Emanuel and Valerie Jarrett, two top advisers to Obama, who previously held the Senate seat the governor is accused of trying to sell. Federal prosecutors have asked that such witnesses not be called because of the criminal investigation, and lawmakers have obliged.
In contrast to Blagojevich's declaration that his rights of due process were being violated, Ellis noted that "impeachment and an impeachment trial is not a criminal proceeding."
"It is not punitive in nature. We are not here today to punish Gov. Blagojevich," said Ellis, who is the legal counsel for House Speaker Michael Madigan, the head of the state's Democratic Party and a longtime nemesis of the two-term Democratic governor. "The purpose of impeachment is remedial. It is to protect the citizens of this state from the abuses of an elected officer."
As Blagojevich's Senate trial opened, a controversial health-care program that is cited in the House charges against the governor was dealt a major blow. A Canadian supplier of low-cost foreign prescription drugs said it will no longer work with the state on its I-SaveRx program. A state audit found few Illinois residents took part in the program despite costly taxpayer-funded promotion and questionable legality.
Blagojevich's national TV blitz in New York threatened to overshadow the start of the first Senate impeachment trial of a governor in the 191-year history of a state with a storied reputation of political corruption involving its chief executives. He disregarded a question from Walters asking whether "for the sake of your state, for your own dignity," it would be better if he resigned.
"No, that would be the worst thing I could do because I'm an innocent man who's not done anything wrong," Blagojevich said.
His media efforts did little for senators, who sit as both judge and jury of his political fate.
"What I'm going to listen to is what the evidence is put on in the Senate chambers in Springfield, Ill., not in New York, not in Washington [or] anywhere else," said Sen. James Clayborne (D-Belleville).
A vote of at least 40 senators is needed to convict Blagojevich, who would then be automatically removed and replaced by Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn.
Though lawmakers have sought to portray the process to oust Blagojevich as bipartisan, the issue of politics surfaced in the Senate. Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale) asked if House prosecutors had sought testimony or other evidence from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) about conversations Reid had with Blagojevich over the vacated Obama seat in Washington. Blagojevich has maintained that Reid and others sought the governor's resignation because the top U.S. Senate Democrat may be on the covert recordings obtained by federal agents.
Sen. Dan Cronin of Elmhurst, the DuPage County GOP chairman, contended outside the trial that Democrats narrowed the focus on Blagojevich because they "want this governor to go away soon" and avoid a more wide-ranging look at those Democrats who helped enable him.
At the same time, Sen. Rickey Hendon (D-Chicago) asked House prosecutors why they wanted to introduce into evidence a recently adopted U.S. House amendment to the proposed federal stimulus plan that would prevent Blagojevich from disbursing any of the package's federal funds.