Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Impeachment: Day 1

Jamey Dunn, Public Affairs Reporting intern, contributed to this report.

It’s the first day that the Illinois House is investigating cause for impeaching Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and Kent Redfield already anticipates articles of impeachment from the House and a successful trial by the Senate.

A political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Redfield said that politically, the governor has forfeited his ability to govern.

Both chambers took actions today that attempt to establish precedent for the proceedings, given that the state Constitution’s vague language and the state’s short history on the process.

The House committee’s investigation will lead to a recommendation about whether to hold actual impeachment proceedings by the full House. More significant action will start Wednesday, when the first witnesses will be called and the rules will be adopted.

Should the House send articles of impeachment over to the Senate, then that chamber is preparing rules to guide a trial. A special committee created today will will draft the rules.

House investigation
But the process starts with the House. Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, chair of the House investigative committee, said she intends to call witnesses to testify, including Ali Ata and Joseph Cari. Both were convicted of felonies related to the federal investigation into the Blagojevich Administration’s hiring and contracting practices

However, the request for witnesses could interfere with the ongoing criminal investigation headed by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. The federal prosecutor asked for a letter with more specific requests about the committee's plans.

Until Fitzgerald’s office responds, members might not meet seven days a week as scheduled. “While we are prepared to work, roll up our sleeves, get it done in a timely but deliberative fashion, we may be stymied early in the investigation by an inability to get clear answers from the United States attorney,” Currie said.

Then again, Redfield said, the effect on the feds’ criminal case is a completely separate issue. “Obviously the legislature’s not going to force someone to testify in ways that would compromise their legal position, but the legislature cannot focus on what this does to the U.S. attorney’s criminal case. The legislature has to focus on what is its political duty, its constitutional duty, in terms of exercising impeachment in a situation that clearly calls for impeachment.”

Even without the U.S. attorney’s cooperation
Even if the feds think the House committee’s proceedings could compromise the criminal investigation, some Democrats and Republicans said they have enough information to go on for impeachment.

Rep. Jack Franks, a Woodstock Democrat and longtime Blagojevich critic, said the plea agreements of Ata and Cari (Ata’s here; Cari’s here) spell out so-called pay-to-play politics, where Ata donated $25,000 to Blagojevich’s political campaign and landed a $125,000 state job soon after. “I’ve been asking for these [hearings] for months, well before this arrest occurred,” Franks said. “I’m confident that we have enough information.”

Franks also intends to discuss two state audits that looked into the governor’s purchase of doses of European flu vaccines that went unused, as well as a $1 million grant mistakenly given to a Chicago school.

The committee might not even need the criminal charges. Showing a significant abuse of power by the executive could itself be adequate cause for impeachment, Currie said.

Political process
That’s partially because the impeachment process is a political proceeding, according to Redfield. While the committee will consider criminal charges filed by the feds, it also will consider the governor’s performance. And it doesn't have to prove anything beyond reasonable doubt. “This is about whether or not the governor has violated his oath of office, whether he is fit to govern or whether he can govern. It’s a political decision.”

Partisan politics also are inevitable. Republicans will have ample opportunity to make Democrats look bad, considering Democrats control every office in this state. Call it retribution for years of GOP fallout from former Gov. George Ryan.

“It’s going to be very easy to get into broad questions of policy and the failures of the Democratic leaders, as well as the governor, to get things done,” Redfield said.

Senate Republicans, in fact, said in a Statehouse news conference this afternoon that they urge an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the impeachment-related committees to prevent the majority party from being able to cover up facts that could hurt the party’s reputation.

“Is this more about uncovering everything and learning about everything that maybe the governor was involved in, or is it about just selectively trying to carve the governor out of the process and leave everything in place?” said Sen. Dale Righter, a Mattoon Republican. “If the latter is what happens, there will not be reform in Illinois politics. There will just be more of the same.”

Here’s the Senate resolution creating a nine-member committee to come up with the rules for a potential impeachment trial. Democrats have five members, Republicans four.

Impeachment: Day 2 and 3
The real work in the House investigative committee will start Wednesday, when members have invited the governor’s lawyer to testify. Items on the agenda, starting at 11 a.m.:

Thursday’s agenda would focus on information not needed from the U.S. attorney’s office. That includes two items:
  • Cases in which the governor might have exceeded his authority, including initiatives he tried to advance through the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. For instance, the governor tried to enact a FamilyCare health insurance program for middle-income families.
  • Audits of the governor’s effort to secure doses of European flu vaccine without legislative approval.

Obama’s replacement update
To the Senate GOP’s disappointment, the Senate did not consider legislation that would allow for a special election of President-elect Barack Obama’s replacement in the U.S. Senate. The House Democrats asked for more time to consider such a measure, which wouldn’t happen until the General Assembly returns January 12.


Anonymous,  5:47 PM  

great recap...thanks for your efforts.

Anonymous,  10:10 AM  

I always enjoy your work, but wanted to offer some commentary for consideration.You may want to review a transcript of yesterdays proceedings. I believe Chairwoman Currie suggested a desire to perhaps call Mr. Atta and Mr. Harris as witnesses, but I do not re call an explicit indication of a desire to call Mr. Cari, as you have reported.

I also think you do a dis-service to allow Chairwoman Currie to be quoted as saying:

“While we are prepared to work, roll up our sleeves, get it done in a timely but deliberative fashion, we may be stymied early in the investigation by an inability to get clear answers from the United States attorney,”

This smacks of laying the groundwork for excuses in advance, without also providing the actual inquiries posed to be clarified and requested by the committee. In the absence of the committee's actual request, the legal and practical obstacles, and the utter foolishness of what has been suggested to be requested should probably not have gone without comment, and there are plenty of experts that could have shed ample light on the flawed approach. To suggest in advance that the U.S. Attorney could be responsible for delaying this process by not responding timely to rediculous requests fails to place the prospective blame squarely where it should belong; on the committee itself.

Finally; I think it would have been worthwhile for the reader if you fleshed out further clarification from Mr. Redfield on this aspect of his commentary:

"the legislature cannot focus on what this does to the U.S. attorney’s criminal case. The legislature has to focus on what is its political duty, its constitutional duty, in terms of exercising impeachment in a situation that clearly calls for impeachment.”

While they have a sworn duty to uphold the constitution here; the legislature has no political duty whatsoever, and they could have done nothing at all and simply allowed the legal process to play out under the premise that the Governor is innocent until proven guilty.

The political apsects of this; while not assigned duties, are merely an opportunity for all parties involved to assign shame and blame and provide political cover or advantage for themselves both now and going forward.

The greater reality of this impeachment proceeding is that it could have admittedly been undertaken a long time before this with great justification, but there was political peril and the absence in advantage of doing so; or of attempting to do so, especially for Democrats. The circumstances now beg the question of a failure to fulfill their constitutional duties, by placing political benefit ahead of their sworn obligations, and those questions have yet to be aggressively asked, or substantially answered.

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