Prospect Of Impeachment Now Looms Over Blagojevich

By: By CHRISTOPHER WILLS, Associated Press Writer
By: By CHRISTOPHER WILLS, Associated Press Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - An Illinois impeachment panel prepared to go to work Tuesday in its first steps toward removing disgraced Gov. Rod Blagojevich. And the embattled Democrat signaled he isn't going down without a fight.

Lawmakers Monday quickly shelved the idea of setting a special election where voters would fill the vacant Senate seat of President-elect Barack Obama - the seat the governor is accused of trying to sell before his arrest last week on federal corruption charges.

But the House also voted 113-0 to create a bipartisan committee that will recommend whether Blagojevich should be impeached. The panel was set to start work Tuesday by discussing how the committee will operate and a review of the claims against the disgraced governor.

"We ought to move as quickly as possible to correct our problems and to get ourselves on a track where we can do what we're supposed to do for the people of Illinois," said House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and former co-chairman of Blagojevich's re-election campaign who has become one of the governor's fiercest critics.

One major unanswered question is whether Blagojevich or his representatives will take part in the committee's work or simply ignore the proceedings. Blagojevich ignored reporters' questions as he left his Chicago residence before 9 a.m. Tuesday, carrying a briefcase and gym bag.

His legal woes were expected to grow, as sentencing on Tuesday for convicted political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko was postponed indefinitely. Court-watchers say the delay will give Rezko more time to talk to prosecutors about Blagojevich or other lawmakers.

Rezko, who raised more than $1 million for Blagojevich's campaign fund, was convicted of shaking down businesses seeking state business for campaign contributions. Witnesses at his trial testified that Blagojevich was aware of some of the incidents.

Senate Democrats Monday dropped any discussion of a special election, for now leaving any decision about the Senate seat in Blagojevich's hands.

Blagojevich, who has ignored calls to resign from Obama and virtually every lawmaker in the state, defiantly signed 11 bills into law Monday - including one mentioned in the 76-page FBI complaint against him. And he hired a bulldog defense attorney, Ed Genson, with a history of taking tough cases to trial.

Meanwhile, Obama's team said an internal review showed that Obama's staff "was not involved in inappropriate discussions" with Blagojevich over the Senate seat. Obama, at a news conference in downtown Chicago, said details of the review were being withheld at the request of prosecutors so more interviews could be conducted.

Controversy has swirled around Obama and his incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, following Blagojevich's arrest. Critics want to know whether Emanuel had spoken with aides to the governor about the seat. Obama said the results of the investigation by his incoming White House counsel would be released "in due course."

Blagojevich - arrested Dec. 9 after being under federal investigation for three years - appeared to be digging in for the legal and professional battles ahead.

"I think that the case that I've seen so far is significantly exaggerated," said Genson, his new attorney. "It's not what people think it is."

Later, Genson said Blagojevich would not step down. "He hasn't done anything wrong," his attorney said Monday night.

At the Capitol, Madigan canceled plans to consider a special election to fill Obama's seat, saying Democrats are split over the best way to fill the vacancy. The move sparked harsh criticism from Republicans.

"Why is it, when the whole world is watching, you can't change your ways at least for one day and let democracy rule?" asked Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.

Madigan said the committee's review will include the criminal charges against Blagojevich as well as a long list of other possible wrongdoing during his six years in office: abuse of power, taking action without legal authority, ignoring state laws and defying lawful requests for information from the General Assembly.

The committee may well work through the holiday season, but it's not clear how long it will take to produce a recommendation. That depends partly on whether the governor's legal team takes part by questioning witnesses and presenting evidence, which would significantly lengthen the process.

Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero said he didn't know how Blagojevich will respond to the committee.

The state constitution gives lawmakers broad authority to impeach a governor. The House would decide whether to file charges against the governor, and the Senate would ultimately rule on them.

Madigan was careful not to call for Blagojevich's resignation or say whether he thinks the governor should be impeached. Madigan said he would preside over any impeachment debate and so should stay neutral.

Madigan's daughter, Lisa, is the Illinois attorney general and widely seen as a top Democratic candidate for governor in 2010.

Madigan often has clashed with Blagojevich and said his staff has been studying impeachment for a year. His office produced a memo this summer outlining all the arguments legislative candidates could make in favor of impeachment.

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Associated Press writers Mike Robinson and Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and John O'Connor in Springfield contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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