SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Rod Blagojevich's historic impeachment trial began Monday without its defiant defendant, who refused to participate and spent the day in New York making television appearances to decry the trial as unfair.
Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald asked whether Blagojevich was present and a long silence followed. The chief justice, who is presiding over the trial, ordered the proceedings to begin as if Blagojevich had entered a plea of not guilty.
"This is a solemn and serious business we're about to engage in," Fitzgerald told the Senate chambers.
Blagojevich, meanwhile, was hundreds of miles away and hit the morning show circuit, appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The View" before a scheduled appearance on "Larry King Live."
"I'm here in New York because I can't get a fair hearing in Illinois, the state Senate in Illinois," Blagojevich said in between appearances. "They've decided, with rules that are fixed, that don't allow me as a governor the right to be able to bring in witnesses to prove that I've done nothing wrong."
The trial will determine whether Blagojevich is removed as governor and barred from ever again holding office in Illinois. No Illinois governor has ever been impeached or ousted.
"We will make a decision, and it will be thoughtful, deliberative and fair," Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Republican, said as the trial opened. "The voters of Illinois have asked for nothing more and they deserve nothing less."
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9, accused of scheming to benefit from his power to name President Barack Obama's replacement in the Senate. He was impeached by the House earlier this month on additional charges of circumventing hiring laws and defying decisions by the General Assembly. A two-thirds majority of the Senate could convict him at trial and throw him out of office.
While refusing to attend the trial, Blagojevich made clear he would only defend himself through a media blitz.
"I'm talking to Americans to let them know what's happening in the land of Lincoln," he said on ABC. "If they can do it to a governor, they can do it to you."
In addition to the appearance on ABC, NBC's "Today" show also aired an interview with the governor Monday.
David Ellis, the House-appointed prosecutor presenting evidence against Blagojevich at the trial, opened by asking senators to let him introduce witnesses and documents meant to bolster the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. attorney's office.
Ellis proposed hearing from Daniel Cain, the FBI agent whose affidavit describes conversations in which Blagojevich allegedly sought to sell Obama's vacant seat in the Senate and tried to pressure groups into donating to his campaign fund. He also asked to introduce evidence on the legal safeguards that ensure federal wiretaps are fair and accurate.
Senators were likely to vote on Ellis' request later Monday.
Blagojevich reiterated his innocence Monday, telling ABC that "I did nothing wrong. And if I did something wrong, I would have resigned."
State senators have denied Blagojevich's claims of bias.
The U.S. attorney has asked senators to bar testimony from anyone federal prosecutors say would jeopardize the criminal corruption trial against the governor, Republican state Sen. Matt Murphy told ABC on Monday. Murphy noted Blagojevich and the impeachment trial prosecutor have the same limitations.
"The suggestion that this is somehow unfair to the governor is the most self-serving, ludicrous statement I have ever heard in my life," Murphy said. "It couldn't be fairer for this guy."
Still, Blagojevich claims he can't call witnesses who would say they talked to him about Obama's Senate seat and Blagojevich said nothing improper.
But the governor would be able introduce public statements from such people - for example, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel saying on a news show that Blagojevich did nothing wrong when the two of them talked.
The rules also let Blagojevich seek testimony from any witnesses not related to the criminal case. But Blagojevich ignored all deadlines for proposing witnesses or introducing evidence. He also ignored the opportunity to comment on proposed Senate rules or challenge them after they were adopted.
Also Monday, Blagojevich revealed he had considered naming Oprah
Winfrey to the Senate.
Winfrey, meanwhile, said she would have turned him down.
"I'm pretty amused by the whole thing," Winfrey told "The Gayle King Show" on Sirius XM Radio. "I think I could be senator too. I'm just not interested."
In recent days, Blagojevich has compared himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and a cowboy being lynched for a crime he didn't commit. He said that when he was arrested on federal corruption charges, he took solace from thinking of other jailed leaders - Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Blagojevich also has hired a public relations firm, but spokesman Lucio Guerrero said Monday that the state won't be footing the bill.
Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn would replace him, becoming Illinois' 41st governor.
Associated Press writers Sara Kugler in New York and Deanna
Bellandi in Chicago contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)