By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Jan. 26 -- Gov. Rod Blagojevich skipped his own impeachment trial on Monday, racing instead from studio to studio in New York to tell television audiences that he is not guilty of the corruption charges that have made the Elvis-impersonating governor and his mop-top hairstyle a late-night punch line.
Ducking the hard questions and leaning into the soft ones, Blagojevich told interviewers, including Diane Sawyer, Larry King and the women of ABC's "The View," that he is a do-gooder who has fallen victim to vindictive politicians in Springfield and Washington.
His ouster, he said, is a foregone conclusion, perhaps within the week.
"The fix is in," he said as 59 Illinois senators gathered 700 miles away in the state capital to decide his fate. He told NBC's "Today" show, in an interview recorded Sunday night, that he thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. last month while FBI agents were leading him away in handcuffs.
No longer the rising star with Chicago working-class roots who once imagined a run for president, Blagojevich is so friendless that he avoided the somber scene that unfolded in the ornate chamber where President Obama spent eight years as a state senator, in the town that launched Abraham Lincoln.
Signs everywhere point to the upcoming celebration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth. After the pride-inducing Nov. 4 election of Obama, who announced his candidacy here in Lincoln's honor and took the oath of office with a hand on the 16th president's Bible, legislators are lamenting the reminder of the state's tawdry side.
"I'm embarrassed by the fact that Illinois once again is being drug through the mud of corruption," state Sen. Frank Watson (R) said during a break. "We're the laughingstock of the nation."
The governor is facing legal troubles on two fronts. The Senate trial appears certain to cost him his job after six years in office and two statewide victories. And a federal indictment expected this year threatens his freedom.
Edward Genson, Blagojevich's attorney, quit the case in frustration, not with the governor's pursuers but with his client. The prominent Chicago lawyer told reporters the other day, "I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require them to at least listen."
On television, Blagojevich said the Illinois legislature's true motivation for ousting him is so that it can raise taxes by Memorial Day. He also revealed that he considered naming Oprah Winfrey to Obama's Senate seat.
The heart of the impeachment trial, mandated by a 117 to 1 vote of the state House this month, is a 76-page FBI affidavit that persuaded a Chicago federal judge to order the governor's arrest. The document uses Blagojevich's own words and the testimony of informants to show him profiting from his official actions.
A central charge is that Blagojevich, 52, who had sole authority to name a U.S. Senate replacement when Obama resigned to become president, tried to sell the seat to the highest bidder.
"These words will be front and center in our case," House prosecutor David Ellis told senators in his opening statement, citing a detailed pattern of abuse of power. "The evidence will show that these words went well beyond harmless chatter or idle speculation to active plotting to personally enrich himself."
Blagojevich told his New York interviewers, however, that the charges against him are "a couple of allegations" based on conversations taken "completely out of context."
"I know what the Senate's going to do. It's a political witch hunt," he told CNN's King. "I'm a big boy. I'll get over it and move on."
And he asked Sawyer on ABC's "Good Morning America," "What ever happened to the presumption of innocence?" He said it is wrong for a sitting governor to have no "chance to have due process, to bring witnesses and to defend himself."
Illinois legislators consider Blagojevich's charges absurd. They said Monday that he can call witnesses, challenge the evidence against him and testify about the conversations captured on FBI tapes.
"The rules clearly permit him to be here and to testify in his own defense," Ellis said.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald, saying that he does not want to jeopardize the criminal case against Blagojevich, has informed both sides in the impeachment trial that certain witnesses are off-limits, including people who spoke with the governor about filling the Senate seat.
Blagojevich said he would like to call Obama advisers, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as witnesses who could say that they discussed no quid pro quo with the governor.
Lawmakers said Blagojevich, if he were not boycotting the trial, could introduce Emanuel's televised statements, as well as a report from Obama White House counsel Gregory B. Craig, that showed no evidence of horse trading.
Ellis said the governor's illicit intentions were clear from his own words. On tape, when it came time to fill Obama's seat, Blagojevich described his criteria: "Our legal situation, our personal situation, my political situation." As the affidavit describes it, Blagojevich called the appointment a "golden" opportunity for himself. Ellis said the governor at first set his sights high, hoping for an Obama Cabinet appointment, or perhaps an ambassadorial post.
When told he could expect only the new president's "appreciation," Ellis said, Blagojevich sought political contributions and other favors. He reminded the senators that the FBI secretly recorded the governor telling a fundraiser: "You gotta be careful how you express that and assume everybody's listening. The whole world's listening."
Blagojevich went on: "I would do it in person. I would not do it on the phone."
Ellis referred to other allegations in the Senate case against Blagojevich, including a series of actions not contained in the criminal case. One was the decision to order $2.6 million in flu vaccine despite his knowledge that importing the vaccine would be illegal and that Illinois residents did not need it.
"This is a governor who believes that his policies should not be hamstrung by the letter of the law," said Ellis, who expects Tuesday to play about five minutes of secretly taped conversations of Blagojevich discussing what he wanted in return for signing a bill to help the horse-racing industry.
As the trial began, all 59 senators answered to the call of the roll and heard a reminder from Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Fitzgerald that each had taken an oath to be fair. He called it "a solemn and serious business that we're about to engage in."
"The record will reflect," Fitzgerald said, "that the governor has chosen not to be present."