Blagojevich Answers Impeachment Vote

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Friday that the Illinois House's decision to impeach him wasn't a surprise because he's been engaged in a struggle with lawmakers since his re-election in 2006. Video by AP
By Kari Lydersen and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 10, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Jan. 9 -- A defiant Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) held a news conference full of poetry and political theater yesterday to answer a nearly unanimous impeachment vote by the Illinois House of Representatives, capping another episode of Illinois politics that is fast making the state, one Democratic lawmaker said, a "freak show."

The latest chapter in the Blagojevich saga competed with fresh drama in the dispute over whether to seat Roland W. Burris (D), the governor's choice for President-elect Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate post. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that Burris did not need Secretary of State Jesse White (D) to sign his appointment document to join the Senate. But Democratic leaders in Washington have made White's signature a prerequisite, and it was unclear whether they would seat Burris.

Setting up a dramatic fight for his future in the state Senate, Blagojevich painted his accusers as small-minded figures who persistently thwarted his efforts at reform. At a choreographed news conference, the governor likened himself to the resourceful Ulysses, quoting Tennyson to say that he and his hired band of defenders have "heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will -- to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

Blagojevich is the first governor in Illinois history and the 16th in the nation to be impeached. When a Senate trial begins later this month, he will try to avoid becoming the eighth to be removed from office. A two-thirds majority is required to convict him on any of the 13 articles of impeachment. Together, the charges depict an erratic political leader who repeatedly sought to profit from his official actions.

The accusations, which rely heavily on the FBI investigation that prompted his arrest, include a charge that Blagojevich threatened to withhold $8 million in Medicaid reimbursements to a children's hospital if an executive failed to make a $50,000 campaign contribution. The governor is also accused of trying to have a Chicago Tribune writer fired by withholding state financing for a stadium project that would help his corporate bosses.

Lawmakers, who voted 114 to 1 to impeach, said they were troubled by Blagojevich's handling of state business beyond the allegations revealed in federal court. The impeachment committee said he purchased millions of dollars' worth of flu vaccine for the state from a British company even after the Food and Drug Administration had made clear it would not allow the doses to be imported. He allegedly spent money without accounting for it and once spent millions on a vague "efficiency initiative" that cost millions without delivering improved efficiency.

"He tried to sell Obama's Senate seat like trying to sell a 4-H hog at the Boone County fair," said Rep. Ronald A. Wait, the longest-serving Republican in the state House. Rep. Susana A. Mendoza, a Chicago Democrat, said: "Even Nixon displayed more integrity than Rod Blagojevich. He resigned before he was impeached."

More than one lawmaker noted ruefully that Friday was Nixon's birthday.

Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D), who chaired the bipartisan impeachment committee that voted unanimously Thursday to recommend the governor's ouster, said the evidence revealed "a public servant who has betrayed his public office, who betrayed the public trust." Noting his refusal to testify or to offer an explanation, she said, "his silence in this grave matter is deafening."

Blagojevich was photographed jogging on snowy Chicago streets as the House was voting to impeach him. But he wasted little time in gathering reporters to hammer lawmakers for their decision. Relying on aides to muster a clutch of constituents -- one in a wheelchair and two small children -- Blagojevich dismissed impeachment as "a foregone conclusion" and said he has been fighting a lonely battle against a do-nothing legislature.

"From the very moment of my reelection, I've been engaged in a struggle with the House to try to get things done for people," Blagojevich said. "The House's action today and the causes of the impeachment are because I've done things to fight for families who are with me here today."

Blagojevich focused on several decisions to bypass the legislature on health-care issues -- actions that lawmakers considered an abuse of power and that the governor defended as proper. He did not address FBI wiretaps or witness statements that captured him conspiring with aides and supporters to sell Obama's former Senate seat and shake down businessmen seeking business with the state.

"Let me reassert to all of you once more that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing," Blagojevich said, leaving the news conference without taking questions. "I'm confident that, at the end of the day, I will be properly exonerated."

Shortly after Blagojevich's appearance, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn (D) told reporters that the governor missed the point. Quinn, who would become governor if Blagojevich were removed, said, "The governor didn't address the central issue, which is the abuse of power he's maintained."

Rep. Elga L. Jefferies, a Democrat representing the South Side of Chicago who voted present, said she thought the committee unfairly dug up misconduct allegations from the past and acted on personal animosity toward the governor. "I felt this was blown out of proportion, if they had to dig back that far," she said.

In Springfield, lawmakers prepared for the fight that Blagojevich promised.

"It's time to stop the freak show which has become the Illinois government," said Rep. Jack D. Franks (D). "The plague that has been brought upon our state by Rod Blagojevich will be lifted."

The Democratic Senate leadership maintains that Burris will not be seated without the signature of White, who thinks that any choice made by Blagojevich is tainted by his December arrest on federal public corruption charges. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Friday that White's signature is not necessary, but the senators were not swayed. Nor was White.

"This governor was arrested in part for trying to sell the same Senate seat he appointed Roland Burris to," White said. "I am under no obligation to affix my signature to that document. As I have maintained all along, the decision to appoint or not appoint is left to the U.S. Senate."

White signed a different document Friday, one that certified that Blagojevich's appointment document is registered with his office. In a statement, the Chicago Tribune reported, he said he "could not and will not in good conscience sign my name to any appointment made by Gov. Rod Blagojevich."

Burris's legal team said it sent the new document from White to Senate Democratic leaders, the Tribune reported.

Slevin reported from Chicago. Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed from Washington.

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