SPRINGFIELD — His career tattered but his dramatic flair intact, Gov. Rod Blagojevich reversed course Wednesday and accepted the Illinois Senate's challenge to explain in person why it shouldn't toss him out of office Thursday in a historic impeachment vote.
After boycotting the trial since its Monday opening, explaining to national TV audiences that he would not dignify an unfair process, Blagojevich asked Wednesday for permission to address senators with a 90-minute closing argument. His appearance, expected to receive Senate approval, would be followed by roll-call votes that could not only remove him as governor but bar him from holding future office.
A vote by 40 of the legislature's 59 state senators to convict Blagojevich on charges of abuse of power would instantly make Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn the state's 41st governor. Quinn intends to be at the Statehouse, awaiting the results of the Senate's deliberation and roll call that could come as soon as late Thursday.
The appearance by Blagojevich answers the challenge of his fellow Democrats who run the chamber, including Senate President John Cullerton, who expressed anger and frustration over the two-term governor's all-out New York media blitz. In a dizzying array of appearances on an alphabet soup of national network and cable news shows, Blagojevich maintained that the outcome of the trial was rigged as a result of unfair rules and special interests who wanted him gone so they could raise taxes.
But after days of Blagojevich's complaints that he couldn't call witnesses or challenge evidence concerning the federal criminal charges that led to his arrest Dec. 9, a number of senators said it was too little, too late from a governor who has traditionally treated the legislature with disdain and disrespect.
Blagojevich and his attorneys refused to participate in any aspect of the trial and ignored deadlines to appear at the trial, challenge the House-issued article of impeachment, seek subpoenas of defense witnesses or offer evidence.
"I don't know what his game plan is or what his intent was," said Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago). "I mean that baffles a lot of us today because there could have been questions posed by his attorney, there's a lot of hearsay that was involved here and they could have attacked witnesses—but they didn't do anything."
Some senators wondered whether it was a final grandstand play by the governor that could end with a highly public resignation—depriving the Senate of the opportunity to remove him and preserving Blagojevich's right to seek future office. But a spokesman for the governor's office waved off that notion.
"Sen. Cullerton asked him to come down," said Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero.
"I don't think he's going down there to resign; I think he's going to make his appeal to senators," Guerrero said.
Cullerton echoed many senators by maintaining it was a "mistake" for Blagojevich to be "hiding out in New York and having Larry King asking questions instead of the senators."
"He should come here and answer the questions," Cullerton said, accusing the governor of lying about the Senate's trial rules in a search for national sympathy.
Still, in delivering a closing argument, Blagojevich would be addressing senators who sit as his judge and jury, but would not face questions from them.
Throughout the six erratic years of Blagojevich's tenure, the governor repeatedly tested the boundaries of what the legislature would let him do with policies he sought to implement by fiat. That was underscored in the testimony senators heard Wednesday.
Auditor General William Holland contended that Blagojevich pushed health-care plans that violated federal import bans and awarded a politically connected firm a massive contract to help save the state money, only to see the firm use taxpayer funds for parties and sports tickets.
Senators also heard from Vicki Thomas, who heads a legislative agency that oversees the implementation of new state laws. She maintained that the Blagojevich administration often ran afoul of legislative guidelines, most prominently when he exceeded his authority by expanding health care without the direct approval of lawmakers.
Blagojevich, who frequently engaged in bruising, name-calling fights with lawmakers, frequently brushed aside the notion that he had to play by the rules. In recent days, he questioned how lawmakers could remove him from office for providing health care for the poor.
But legislators said Blagojevich often left them with feelings of distrust as he portrayed them as captives of special interests even though several of his top former aides became lobbyists and quickly profited on their connections.
Although the testimony lacked the high-profile attention devoted to the criminal charges Blagojevich faces, including allegations he sought to sell the U.S. Senate vacated by President Barack Obama, many senators alleged that the governor's blatant vio- lations of laws and rules that keep basic government operating were just as scandal- ous.
But the presentation of evidence was concluded Wednesday, with no submissions from the governor, and Cullerton said Blagojevich would not be answering questions but only presenting a closing argument Thursday.
Since he made no official appearance at his trial, Blagojevich must first get Senate permission to speak Thursday morning. He is expected to be allowed up to 90 minutes for his closing argument, following the 60-minute closing argument by House prosecutor David Ellis. The prosecutor is allowed a 30-minute rebuttal argument.
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) said Blagojevich's last-minute decision to show up fits with his six-year pattern of avoiding the details of any topic before him and trying instead to deflect criticism.
"He's all about PR," Radogno said. "He's all about press releases. That's how he's governed the whole time he's been here. He's gone around the legislature. He's gone directly for the TV cameras."
Lawmakers have walked a fine line of declaring they are not prejudging the governor while many have at the same time predicted that his days are numbered—now in single digits.
Quinn said that if Blagojevich is convicted by the Senate before he leaves Springfield, he will have to find his own way home.
"I don't think the taxpayers should pay out of the public purse transportation for a private citizen," Quinn said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun