SPRINGFIELD — Lawmakers turned away from the federal corruption charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich and focused Thursday on other reasons to impeach him, highlighting a string of controversial policy moves as evidence of an autocratic and wasteful approach to governing.
Although they may not sizzle like claims that Blagojevich tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat, the allegations that the unpopular governor bypassed the legislature and mismanaged the state likely will serve as cornerstones for an impeachment vote.
"It's not as sexy as the criminal aspect," said Rep. Connie Howard (D-Chicago), who questioned whether the governor had abused his power, "but it has to do with whether or not an executive feels that he is the last word on everything."
The House Special Investigative Committee heard a litany of Blagojevich's biggest blunders and run-ins with the legislature committed since he took office in 2003. He expanded health care with questionable authority, awarded a much criticized $30 million contract to a politically connected firm and bought millions of dollars worth of flu vaccine on the world market that were eventually wasted.
"It was lousy government," said state Auditor General William Holland, adding the flu vaccine was "very costly. Very costly."
The $2.6 million purchase of flu vaccine never was approved to enter the United States, and Blagojevich with great fanfare eventually had it shipped to Pakistan. A Tribune investigation last year found the drugs were never used as intended, which prompted questions on whether Blagojevich had been deceitful.
Holland called it a "waste of state resources."
Rep. Lou Lang (D- Skokie) said Thursday's "testimony is critical to getting to the bottom line of if the governor has violated his constitutional oath."
Blagojevich's attorney Ed Genson said he saw nothing in the testimony that would lead to the governor's impeachment.
Holland also outlined troubling audits his office conducted over the years, ranging from an efficiency initiative with doubtful results to the questionable $30 million contract given to a consortium before it was officially formed. Blagojevich later revoked that contract after initially defending it.
"I don't think they had a care in the world," Holland said.
Lawmakers sharply clashed with Director Barry Maram of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services after he said he couldn't answer some questions because of a court case challenging the administration's authority to expand health care without legislative approval.
Last year, Blagojevich sought to expand state-sponsored health care coverage to people with incomes up to $83,000 a year for a family of four. The move quickly was shot down by a legislative rulesmaking panel, but the administration signed up people anyway.
Maram defended the program but said he did not know who initiated the controversial expansion. He did not answer questions from reporters as he dashed with an entourage down the Capitol hallways.
Working with Genson, Samuel Adam Jr. argued the governor chose to fight for "sick children" when the administration made decisions. But his arguments drew groans from lawmakers.
Lawmakers also heard testimony that the Blagojevich administration frequently stymied Freedom of Information Act requests, including efforts by the Better Government Association to acquire copies of federal grand jury subpoenas delivered to the administration as part of the corruption investigation.
Attorney Donald Craven, who has represented the Tribune and other news organizations in public records disputes, said the administration's disregard for the state's Freedom of Information Act showed "evidence of contempt for the law."
Rep. Julie Hamos (D- Evanston) said she wanted to know how much money the Blagojevich administration had spent on private attorneys fighting such requests, after testimony that a couple of cases could have cost more than $150,000.
Lawmakers spent little time on the criminal charges against Blagojevich, but Genson attempted to head off any effort to use covert recordings that led to the governor's arrest last week, saying he questioned whether they were legal.
"You don't enhance the reputation of the state of Illinois by denying Gov. Blagojevich due process," Genson said.
Tribune political reporter Rick Pearson contributed to this story.
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