By Kari Lydersen and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 30, 2009
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. Jan. 29 -- The state senators stood up one by one in a hushed chamber on Thursday to call Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) a liar and a hypocrite who put his ego and his pocketbook ahead of the interests of Illinois.
One called him "devious, cynical, crass and corrupt." Another said the evidence of abuse of power was "overwhelming." A third said he was "without a doubt unfit to govern."
Together, they voted 59 to 0 to reject Blagojevich's theatrical last-minute pleas and remove him from office, ending a stormy tenure that left the nation's fifth-largest state paralyzed by its governor's alleged misdeeds and nationally ridiculed for its latest bout of corruption.
"I believe our state must enter rehab," Sen. Randall Hultgren (R) told his colleagues before the vote. "Moral rehabilitation."
Blagojevich's repudiation in a state where he was elected twice to the governorship and three times to Congress could mark a dramatic exit from the national stage, which he commanded briefly but memorably. His next battle is expected to come in federal court in Chicago, where he risks losing his freedom over allegations that he schemed to trade official actions for political contributions and other favors.
Blagojevich, charged with wire fraud and bribery, is free on $4,500 bond.
Before Thursday's speechmaking was over, and a pair of unanimous votes were cast to oust Blagojevich and bar him from Illinois public office for life, the governor had already taken his final flight home to Chicago aboard a state airplane. After he arrived, on a darkening winter afternoon, as his fate was about to be sealed, he went for a jog.
Talking with reporters later, he called the verdict "un-American."
"The fix was in from the beginning," Blagojevich said, insisting that he wants no pity.
"There are tens of thousands of people across America just like me who are losing their jobs, or who have lost their jobs," Blagojevich said. "To the people of Illinois, God bless all of you. I want you to know that I haven't let you down."
Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn became the state's 41st governor and said he would move right away into the Italianate red-brick governor's mansion that Blagojevich disdained. Quinn supported Blagojevich during their reelection on the Democratic ticket in 2006, but the men have not spoken since August 2007.
"The rule of law prevailed in Illinois. We are ready to move forward," Quinn said after the vote. "Something I'm going to work on night and day is to ask folks to put aside differences of the past and really focus on the common good. We're going to make this a year of reform in Illinois."
Quinn quoted labor leader Cesar Chavez, saying "Sí se puede" -- "Yes, we can."
The impeachment saga moved from drama to farce and back again in the 51 days after FBI agents arrested Blagojevich in the middle of what U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald called "a political corruption crime spree." Along the way, Blagojevich bucked calls to resign and outmaneuvered Democratic leaders in Springfield and Washington to appoint Roland W. Burris, little known and years out of politics, to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Obama.
Instead of challenging his impeachment, he was 700 miles away when the trial began Monday, denouncing the proceedings in more than a dozen national television interviews as a "kangaroo court." He showed up only on Thursday, to deliver his own closing argument.
It was a speech long on passion and short on answers, and it did nothing to help his cause. Blagojevich spoke of his immigrant parents, his hard-luck upbringing and good works he claimed as governor. He called the proceedings "an evisceration of the presumption of innocence."
"There was never a conversation where I intended to break any law," Blagojevich, 52, told the Senate. "How can you throw a governor out of office on a criminal complaint and you haven't been able to show or to prove any criminal activity? I'm appealing to you and your sense of fairness."
His defiance left his accusers unmoved in the face of evidence from witnesses and secret wiretaps that appeared to show that Blagojevich schemed to profit from his official actions: He allegedly tried to sell Obama's former Senate seat and allegedly plotted to force the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers by threatening to withhold $150 million in state money for Wrigley Field, owned by Tribune Co.
Prosecutors said Blagojevich plotted to extort campaign contributions from a racetrack operator, a road contractor and an executive of a Chicago children's hospital whose doctors were owed $8 million in Medicaid reimbursements.
Senators noted that Blagojevich refused to be questioned under oath about the 13 alleged misdeeds that House prosecutor David Ellis called an "unmistakable" pattern of abuse of power. Ellis paid particular attention to FBI excerpts of 60 taped conversations.
"Our point was on his words, his secretly recorded words, and who in the world was more qualified to testify about the governor's words than the governor himself?" Ellis asked during his closing argument.
"He talked more about the evidence with Barbara Walters on 'The View' than he did in this chamber today, where he's facing impeachment and removal from office. He could have been here, and he wasn't."
"The silence that spoke loudest was the absent voice of the governor," Sen. Toi Hutchinson (D) said before she voted to remove him. "The price of corruption is high, and the people of my district are tired of paying for it, over and over and over."
"He reminded us today in real detail," said Sen. Matt Murphy (R), "that he is an unusually good liar."
Sen. Kirk Dillard (R) added, tongue in cheek, that Blagojevich has a bright future in Hollywood.
Blagojevich became the first Illinois governor to be impeached and expelled from office. Three Illinois governors since 1973 were convicted after leaving office, including his predecessor, George Ryan (R), who is still in prison.
The Blagojevich saga may be remembered for the target's salty words, captured on the FBI tapes.
"I've got this thing and it's [expletive] golden," Blagojevich said of his authority to choose Obama's successor, "and I'm just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing."
As Sen. James Meeks (D) informed his colleagues that he was planning to vote to kick Blagojevich out of office, he said, "We have this thing called impeachment and it's bleeping golden, and we've used it the right way."
Slevin reported from Chicago.