By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 18, 2008
CHICAGO. Dec. 17 -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attorney attacked impeachment proceedings as "unfair and quite frankly illegal," in a clear signal that the Illinois governor, charged by federal prosecutors with public corruption, will not leave office without a fight.
"This is 'Alice in Wonderland,' " lawyer Ed Genson protested to 21 members of a special Illinois House impeachment committee in Springfield, the state capital. "The issue in this case is the evidence you have. The evidence you have is nil, zero, nothing."
After the hearing, Genson said he does not expect Blagojevich (D) to name anyone to President-elect Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat, because the Senate is "not going to accept anybody he appoints."
In Chicago, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected without comment an effort by Attorney General Lisa Madigan to have Blagojevich declared unfit to hold office.
The court's decision and Genson's combative stance appear to leave Blagojevich's critics -- including Obama and the 50 members of the Senate Democratic caucus -- with no quick avenue to his ouster.
Blagojevich, heading out for a jog on Chicago's snow-covered streets, told reporters that he is "dying" to tell his side of a story that has fascinated residents since his Dec. 9 arrest.
"To quote Elvis, 'Hang loose,' " said Blagojevich, 52, a longtime Elvis Presley fan.
The 21-member impeachment committee aims to make a recommendation by Jan. 14, drawing on information accumulated by federal prosecutors and the lawmakers themselves. On Thursday, the committee is expected to discuss allegations unrelated to the criminal complaint, including that Blagojevich conducted state business without required administrative authority.
On Wednesday, the group's substantive meeting quickly grew contentious as Genson questioned the new committee's procedures, the quality of its evidence and its standard of proof.
Genson asked for a delay to prepare the governor's defense and requested an advance look at evidence. He also asked lawmakers to bar the use of any Blagojevich conversations secretly recorded by the FBI.
"We object to using that dog and pony show -- the complaint -- to determine whether a man should stay in office or not," Genson said.
He argued that three members of the committee have already decided that Blagojevich should be impeached, and said they should step down. And he said FBI accounts that show Blagojevich discussing influence peddling and extortion may have taken the governor's words out of context.
At one point, Genson asked about the governor's ability to question the evidence against him, prompting state Rep. Jack D. Franks (D) to ask, "Will you be bringing your client here?"
"Maybe I will and maybe I won't," Genson replied. "I have to find out what you're going to do at the end of your case, and I'll decide what to do."
Genson added that his client, charged last week with two counts of influence peddling by U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
"This is a real witch hunt," Genson told reporters outside earshot of the lawmakers.
The lawmakers stood their ground, asserting that Genson's assertions were out of place.
"We're not a court of law. We're not quite a grand jury," said state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D), the committee chairman. "We hope our rules will be fair and open and provide possibilities for people to participate."
The state Supreme Court's rejection of Madigan's request to remove Blagojevich from office suggested that the court would defer to the legislature, which voted 113 to 0 this week to explore the government's impeachment and removal.
Madigan (D), who contends that essential state business cannot be completed with Blagojevich in office, said she was disappointed by the decisions.
"Because of Governor Blagojevich's refusal to resign, the state of Illinois is in an unsustainable situation," Madigan said. Referring to the impeachment effort, she added: "I am hopeful that the General Assembly will act with deliberate speed."
Although Blagojevich signed 11 bills into law this week while maintaining a public silence about his plans, two issues worry lawmakers as they await his next move.
One is a budget crisis that will require the state to borrow more than $1 billion to pay vendors. The other is the need to appoint someone to fill Obama's seat.
Under Illinois law, Blagojevich has the sole authority to select a replacement for Obama, who left his Senate seat on Nov. 16. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has said that any Blagojevich pick would be tainted by the governor's talk of profiting from the choice, and would not be seated.
Lawmakers backed away this week from a plan to schedule a special election and to strip Blagojevich's power to make the appointment. They gave several reasons, including the unpredictable fate of a bill that would need the governor's signature to become law.
Democrats who drove the decision also said they feared that a special election would give Republicans the chance to win the seat when public disgust with Blagojevich and his administration is running high.
If Blagojevich resigns or is removed, the ability to appoint the next junior senator will fall to a Democrat, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. Several lawmakers said this week that they believe Blagojevich could be removed by the end of February.
Lydersen reported from Springfield.