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Corruption brings down a governor

As Illinois state senators decided his political fate, Blagojevich played the national media

By / January 30, 2009

Impeached: Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich alienated many lawmakers in his state. The evidence of his corruption seemed overwhelming to them, and in the end state senators voted unanimously to oust him.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

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Chicago

The Illinois Senate brought to a close two months of drama surrounding the future of Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Thursday when they removed him from office, unanimously convicting him in their impeachment trial and ceding the office to Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who was sworn in about an hour later.

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The vote came at the end of a dramatic day in the state Senate, in which Governor Blagojevich – who had refused to take part in the trial or send a lawyer to represent him -– showed up to give an impassioned 45-minute closing statement in which he declared his innocence, insisted that the impeachment proceedings were unfair, and pleaded with lawmakers to acquit him.

So far a crime has not been proven here in this impeachment proceeding,” he declared. “How can you throw a governor out of office with insufficient and incomplete evidence?” The senators remained unmoved.

"He’s inept, he’s corrupt, he’s cost the state millions of dollars,” said Sen. Kirk Dillard (R) during the deliberations, echoing the remarks of many of his colleagues. “After that performance today, I wish him luck on his new Hollywood career.”

Blagojevich was impeached on 13 counts, eight of which had to do with the criminal charges brought against him in December, which alleged that he had tried to sell the US Senate seat vacated by President Obama, had demanded the firing of Chicago Tribune editorial writers in exchange for state help with the sale of Wrigley Field, and had engaged in pay-to-play corruption schemes.

Prosecutors had it on tape

The senators largely relied on the 76-page criminal complaint and the numerous excerpts of wiretapped phone calls that it detailed, since the US attorney’s office had asked them not to call witnesses involved in the criminal trial. The office did release four FBI tapes in which Blagojevich appeared to be trying to shake down a racetrack operator for a campaign contribution in return for signing legislation.

In his remarks Thursday, Blagojevich refused to respond to the criminal charges, since they have yet to be proved in court, and instead focused on the other charges listed in the articles, mostly stemming from allegations that he abused his office by ignoring laws and lawmakers in his policy decisions.

Blagojevich portrayed those actions -- including efforts to expand health care and get prescription drugs from Canada -- as actions that antagonized legislators but were designed to help citizens. “The means were legal and the ends were moral,” he said.

Many Senators, meanwhile, were angered by the governor’s refusal to participate in the trial, and his misrepresentation of the rules on a three-day national media blitz that he embarked on instead. They noted that, contrary to his claims, he could have called witnesses and introduced or challenged evidence, and they said that they would have preferred he take part in the trial rather than come for a last-minute appearance in which he wasn’t under oath and didn’t take questions.

"As always, the governor plays only by the rules that he chooses,” said House prosecutor David Ellis in his rebuttal. “Under the governor’s rules, you don’t ask him questions.”

Mr. Ellis reminded senators that they didn’t need to believe all 13 counts constituted impeachable offenses in order to convict him.

Blagojevich “doesn’t have a Constitutional right to be governor,” Ellis explained. “Being governor is not a right but a privilege, and the governor has forfeited that privilege. ... A pattern of abuse is unmistakable.” Legal and political experts generally agree.

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