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Under fire: Blagojevich shuns trial, opens PR blitz

The Illinois governor's impeachment trial may open Monday without the defendant or his lawyers.

By Staff writer / January 26, 2009

Embattled governor: Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich is appearing on radio and TV shows to defend his record.

Paul Beaty/AP



When Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment trial begins at noon Monday, there is likely to be a noted absence: the governor himself, or lawyers representing him.

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So far, the Illinois governor has refused to take part, calling the trial “a trampling of the [US] Constitution.” His lawyers have labeled the impeachment a “lynching,” and declared a week ago that they wouldn’t take part.

Mr. Blagojevich has missed every deadline for requesting or challenging witnesses or evidence. He appears instead to be trying to make his case via a national media blitz, hiring a PR firm and appearing Monday on the TV programs “Good Morning America,” “The View,” and “Larry King Live.”

“It makes you wonder what’s going on. Blagojevich has a rationality all his own,” says Christopher Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Springfield.

Among the possibilities: His legal team doesn’t know how to defend him and, by not showing up, hopes to argue that it’s an unfair system; or it wants to focus its efforts on the criminal trial, because almost everyone expects the impeachment trial to result in a conviction, Professor Mooney says.

It’s also possible that Blagojevich has simply run out of money to pay lawyers, lacks a staff to develop a coherent strategy, and has let deadlines slide by without knowing what to do, he adds.

“Who knows what goes on in his head,” says Mooney, echoing the thoughts of many Illinoisans as they watched their governor relaunch his PR campaign Friday with a press conference and radio and newspaper interviews. In them, the two-term Democratic governor suggested that the impeachment process was part of a scheme by the legislature and Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to raise income taxes in the state and to oust him because of his independent streak.

Lead defense lawyer quits

Blagojevich also called on local newspapers – particularly the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times – to defend him and to attack the trial in editorials. The plea was not without irony, as the Tribune noted in an editorial Saturday, in that part of the criminal complaint against the governor alleges that he tried to have members of the Tribune’s editorial page fired this fall for criticizing him.

The media blitz appears to be one reason Blagojevich’s lead lawyer, Ed Genson, quit Friday, saying, “I never require a client to do what I say, but I do require them to at least listen.”

At the heart of Blagojevich’s arguments is his position that the trial is stacked against him and denies him the means to effectively defend himself.

Impeachment trials are rare, and since they are considered a political proceeding, they are not subject to the normal rules of a courtroom. While Thomas Fitzgerald, the Illinois Supreme Court’s chief justice, will preside, state senators can overrule his decisions, and there is no guideline as to what is the standard of proof of guilt.