Bringing Down Blagojevich: July/August 2009
The Illinois legislature turned to impeachment after years at loggerheads with the defiant governor.
By John Patterson
When federal agents showed up at the front door of Governor Rod Blagojevich’s Chicago bungalow to arrest him on conspiracy charges early one morning last December, they handed Illinois lawmakers the excuse they’d long sought to launch an impeachment investigation.
“It was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Once that happened,” says Illinois Senator Terry Link, a Democrat from the suburbs north of Chicago, “it was very easy for us to do what we did.”
For most of the country, the governor’s high-profile arrest might have been the first they heard of his troubles. The charges included trying to pad his campaign fund by attempting to sell off President Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat, demanding a campaign contribution from a children’s hospital executive in return for state funding, and even trying to force the firing of Chicago Tribune writers.
But in Illinois, the political and legal clashes surrounding Blagojevich’s tenure had taken on a life of their own. They offer insights into the Capitol climate and the perspective of lawmakers as they launched the first-ever impeachment of an Illinois governor.
The impeachment might have come earlier but for the governor’s astute maneuvering through the political infighting of Illinois politics. Despite ignoring the findings of auditors, refusing to abide by administrative orders and brushing off accusations of corruption, Blagojevich was able to avoid serious consequences until the political landscape changed.
“There were certainly many lawmakers who felt the governor abused and misused his executive authority,” says Representative Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat and chairwoman of the impeachment investigation committee. “But I don’t think for most lawmakers those charges, those complaints, those issues had risen to the level of impeachment.”
The Constant Contrarian
Over the course of six years, Blagojevich alienated fellow Democrats, reneged on promises, ridiculed lawmakers, challenged their authority, and when things didn’t go his way, ignored them and did what he wanted.
He routinely ordered them back to Springfield and kept them there, demanding they approve his proposals. While lawmakers spent their summers trapped downstate, Blagojevich stayed at home in Chicago, and on the rare occasions he did venture to the Capitol, he’d fly home on a state plane every afternoon rather than stay at the nearby Executive Mansion.
He compared Michael Madigan, chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party and speaker of the Illinois House, to Ho Chi Minh, questioned his credentials as a Democrat and accused him of being part of a “right-wing Republican effort to take health care away from children and take meals away from senior citizens.”
A striking example of the disconnect played out at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. As Illinois Democrats witnessed Obama accept the historic nomination, Blagojevich flew back to Illinois and chose that moment to announce hundreds of layoffs and the closing of two dozen state parks and historic sites to trim state spending.
Blagojevich often sought to assert his office as above others and accountable only to voters.
When state auditors issued a scathing report detailing how Blagojevich cast aside contracting laws in steering millions to politically connected firms, the governor sloughed off the findings, calling the audit a “prize fight between accountants.”
His nationally publicized plan to buy vaccines from Europe when a flu scare emerged went awry because he never got federal permission to import the shots. Illinois taxpayers couuld end up eating the $2.6 million price tag.
In late 2007, with the future of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program uncertain, Blagojevich declared an emergency to preserve state coverage for families making up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level. But in the same emergency rule he expanded state coverage to parents and caretakers making up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. An administrative panel responsible for making sure policies match the laws that created them, suspended Blagojevich’s orders, saying no emergency existed that warranted the 400 percent expansion.
He ignored that decision and told his health care agency to keep enrolling families.
The same panel then nixed his final proposal as well, saying there was no authority to launch a health care expansion lawmakers never approved let alone funded. Another court case ensued.
Aside from the political and ego battles, scandal swirled. Blagojevich’s former political adviser Antoin “Tony” Rezko was convicted of soliciting bribes from those wanting a share of state pension investment business. Blagojevich’s close friend and unofficial gambling policy adviser, Chris Kelly, pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud for hiding illegal gambling debt with business income and was sentenced to 37 months in prison.
Meanwhile there were growing questions about Blagojevich’s wife’s real estate commissions and exactly why his 7-year-old daughter got a $1,500 birthday check from the governor’s former campaign treasurer only days before the former treasurer’s wife got a state job. Even the governor acknowledged being brought in for questioning by federal agents.
Why wasn’t he impeached sooner?
“Those were issues that were out there and were of major concern to many lawmakers, but were not, I think, the kinds of issues that attracted a lot of public discussion and debate,” says Currie. “Even within the lawmaker community there were many who believed that the fact that the governor was offering health care to more people was more important than how he did it.”
There was also a political component. Through most of this, Blagojevich had a key ally—Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat. Time and again Jones and Blagojevich joined together to put pressure on Madigan and Illinois House members. As long as Jones was in control, few expected a Senate impeachment trial to ever convene.
But in August 2008, Jones announced his retirement at the end of the year. Emerging as the new leader was John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat who enjoyed a healthy political relationship with Madigan and the House leadership.
And it was against this evolving political landscape that the FBI delivered a wake-up call to the Blagojevich residence the morning of Dec. 9.
Madigan gave Blagojevich a week to resign. When he didn’t, the House assembled a panel to explore impeachment. Soon after, the 118-member House voted 113-0 to formally launch that investigation.
The Illinois Constitution offers no guidance on what is an impeachable offense. It simply gives the House sole power to investigate an impeachment case and, by majority vote, send a case to the Senate. The House’s role is akin to that of a grand jury. In the Senate, the chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court presides over the trial. Removing a governor requires a two-thirds vote in the 59-member chamber.
How and why lawmakers make the case is up to them.
“I think everybody had their own personal feelings that this governor had to be removed. We’re human. We read these outrageous accusations,” says Representative Jim Durkin, the top Republican on the House investigative panel.
“That’s why the committee went through this painstaking process to make sure we weren’t acting out of personal animosity. The constitution says we could have impeached him the first day we met. We went above and beyond,” he says.
Similarly, Currie, who chaired the investigative panel, said the focus was on protecting the governor’s rights, given the overwhelming public sentiment against him.
“We were not just in a ‘throw-the-bastard-out’ mode. Saying that, the context clearly was people wanted him gone,” she says. “The phone calls I was getting, the e-mails I was getting, the messages I was getting in my district were all: ‘Get it done. Throw him out.’ There was very much a lynch mob mentality.
“But I thought it was important that we took very seriously the due process rights of this individual. We were not intending to be a verdict first, trial later,” she says. “We were not ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ ”
The governor’s legal team disagreed. Famed Chicago defense lawyer Edward Genson handled the case, but this was unlike anything he’d ever seen in criminal courtrooms. Impeachment is more a political than legal venue, and Genson and colleague Sam Adam Jr., often found themselves frustrated.
During one day’s proceedings delving into Blagojevich’s health care expansion, Adam attempted to cast aside hours of testimony and turn the focus from violations of procedures and rules to how many people benefited from Blagojevich’s efforts. “How many brother and sister Illinois citizens’ lives were saved?” he asked Blagojevich’s health care team.
Lawmakers shut him down.
“We’re not that kind of jury,” Currie informed him.
The investigative committee ultimately put together a lone, sweeping abuse of power charge against Blagojevich and sent it along to the full House on a unanimous vote.
The Illinois House voted 114-1 with one member voting “present” to send the case to the Senate for a trial. But there was a catch. This all occurred as the 95th Illinois General Assembly was ending. When the 96th General Assembly was sworn in, the old House wouldn’t be allowed to send an impeachment case to the new Senate for a trial, and there wasn’t enough time for both to act.
So the House impeached Blagojevich twice. The first vote was Jan. 9. The second occurred Jan. 14, just after lawmakers took the ceremonial oath of office. This time, the vote was 117-1 with new member Deborah Mell casting the lone objection. Mell is a Chicago Democrat and Blagojevich’s sister-in-law.
That same day, members of the Illinois Senate took their oaths of office in a ceremony made awkward by the state Constitution’s requirement that Blagojevich preside over it.
Within a few days, those senators convened the Senate trial with rules modeled on the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
“Our primary concern was developing fair rules that could stand as precedent down the road if we were ever forced to return to a similar matter, but more immediately could stand for the notion that the Senate was going to conduct a fair proceeding,” says Senator Don Harmon, a suburban Chicago Democrat who helped assemble the process.
The highlight of the four-day Senate trial was when the U.S. Attorney’s Office released excerpts from its wiretaps that caught the governor in the midst of his alleged shakedown efforts. The only tape federal prosecutors turned over for use dealt with an alleged attempt to get a $100,000 campaign contribution from a horseracing figure in exchange for the governor signing a law beneficial to that industry.
The excerpt featured a top Blagojevich aide explaining how he’d got in the “face” of the track official. “OK, good,” Blagojevich is heard saying.
To this point, Blagojevich had refused to participate in the process and had avoided testifying under oath or facing any questions from lawmakers. Finally, on the eve of the Senate vote, he made a final statement, but remained defiant.
“I want to apologize to you for what happened, but I can’t because I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said during a nearly 50-minute speech.
He left, flew home on the state plane and was back in Chicago by the time the vote occurred.
The final Senate tally was unanimous, 59-0 to remove him from office and 59-0 to bar him from ever seeking public office again in the state. Blagojevich claimed “the fix was in.”
Many senators used their closing remarks to speak of the dark day in Illinois and how sad this was.
One freshman Republican, making his first floor speech, chided veteran lawmakers, especially the Democrats, for enabling Blagojevich.
“How is it that the majority in this chamber, the same people who have presented this case reflecting years of corruption, are the same people who have praised the governor by giving him three pay raises over the past two years?” asked Senator Dan Duffy.
But some said the vote proved the system of checks and balances will ultimately quell any grab for power.
“We have this thing called impeachment,” offered Senator James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, “and it’s bleepin’ golden and we’ve used it the right way.”
John Patterson covers the Illinois legislature for the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.
Rod Blagojevich photo by M. Spencer Green/Associated Press.