SPRINGFIELD — The Illinois House launched its first-ever impeachment probe of a governor Monday, promising weeks of hearings detailing Gov. Rod Blagojevich's alleged abuse of power, from enacting massive programs without legislative approval to seeking to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
But the House also held off on calls to strip the disgraced governor of his power to appoint Obama's successor, angering Republicans who accused Democrats of a power play aimed at protecting their dominance of state politics.
House lawmakers voted 113-0 to authorize a committee to investigate a host of pay-to-play allegations leveled against the governor, just six days after he was arrested by federal agents at his North Side home. The vote marked the unique circumstance of Democratic lawmakers leading a bid to displace Illinois' first Democratic governor in a quarter-century.
House Speaker Michael Madigan, though co-chairing Blagojevich's 2006 re-election bid in a symbol of party unity, has been a top critic of the governor. Asked about the criminal complaint against the governor, Madigan said, "I've had an opportunity to know Mr. Blagojevich for over six years so I was not surprised."
The House panel is expected to hold several weeks of hearings, scheduled to begin Tuesday, and has the power to issue subpoenas and compel witnesses to testify. The panel also will seek information from the U.S. attorney's office as well as information gained from other parts of the federal investigation, such as information arising from the conviction of top Blagojevich adviser and fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko.
"This is not a kangaroo court," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), Madigan's top lieutenant, who will chair the investigations panel. "It's absolutely critical that we do this deliberately, that we don't rush to judgment, that we don't say, because the public is clamoring for his head, we should take the head first and do the trial later."
As Blagojevich retained noted criminal defense attorney Ed Genson on Monday, Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero brushed off the House action.
"Talk of impeachment is nothing new to the governor, and once the House makes its recommendation, then he will have more to say," Guerrero said.
Genson sought to downplay the federal government's complaint against Blagojevich.
"The case that I've seen so far is significantly exaggerated," Genson told ABC News. "It's just not, it's not what people think it is."
Blagojevich showed no signs of giving up his post. On Monday, he signed a dozen bills into law, including one involving the horse-racing and casino industries that federal prosecutors allege Blagojevich was using to squeeze campaign contributions in exchange for his signature.
The road toward impeachment was led by Madigan, a veteran Southwest Side lawmaker who also heads the Democratic Party of Illinois.
"We plan to proceed without delay," Madigan said. "This action is reflective of probably a majority of people in the House, probably a majority of people in the state."
Madigan also is the father of Democratic Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan, long interested in a bid for governor, who is pursuing her own attempt to have Blagojevich dumped from office by the Illinois Supreme Court.
Some Democratic House members said they believed the attorney general's plan to have the state's highest court declare Blagojevich incapable of carrying out his duties a long shot, and lawmakers were restless to move forward with impeachment.
If the newly formed panel recommends impeachment, the House will vote on its findings. If Blagojevich is impeached by the House, the matter would go to the Senate, which acts as jury. The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court would preside over the chamber.
If Blagojevich was forced from office or if the governor decided to resign, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn would become the state's new chief executive.
In one indication of how long the impeachment investigation may take, Madigan said rules would be written to allow the panel's work to continue through the inauguration of the next General Assembly in mid-January. At the same time, retiring Senate President Emil Jones Jr. and his successor, Sen. John Cullerton, were working on drawing up rules for conducting an impeachment trial. Both men are Chicago Democrats.
Ostensibly, House and Senate lawmakers convened their emergency session to strip Blagojevich of his Senate appointment powers after a federal criminal complaint alleged he believed he could gain a Cabinet appointment, an ambassadorship or a high-paying foundation post or squeeze campaign cash with his choice.
Despite initial calls by some prominent Democrats, including Sen. Dick Durbin and Quinn, for holding a special election, divisions among House Democrats left intact the current law that allows the governor to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy. That means Blagojevich still has the power to name Obama's successor, but Democrats said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has assured that the nation's senators would not seat such an appointment.
Republicans contended that the action to quash a special election was motivated by fears that a Blagojevich-inspired backlash among voters would end the Democrats' hold on the Senate seat.
"Let's have an honest, open election to clear the air and clear the opinion of America and indeed the world about what happens in Illinois, not another backroom deal," Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Troy) told Democrats who run the House.
But Democrats said a special statewide primary and general election for senator could cost upward of $50 million, which the state does not have.
Standing on the House floor, Rep. Susana Mendoza (D-Chicago) spoke for many of her colleagues.
"The best way that we can begin healing is for the governor to resign and to resign now," she said.
Tribune reporter Monique Garcia contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun