Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich thrown out of office
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich was thrown out of office Thursday without a single lawmaker coming to his defense, brought down by a government-for-sale scandal that stretched from Chicago to Capitol Hill and turned the foul-mouthed politician into a national punchline.
Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, becomes the first U.S. governor in more than 20 years to be removed by impeachment.
After a four-day trial, the Illinois Senate voted 59-0 to convict him of abuse of power, automatically ousting the second-term Democrat. In a second, identical vote, lawmakers further barred Blagojevich from ever holding public office in the state again.
«He failed the test of character. He is beneath the dignity of the state of Illinois. He is no longer worthy to be our governor,» said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from suburban Chicago.
Blagojevich’s troubles are not over. Federal prosecutors are drawing up an indictment against him on corruption charges.
Outside his Chicago home Thursday night, Blagojevich vowed to «keep fighting to clear my name,» and added: «Give me a chance to show you that I haven’t let you down.»
«I love the people of Illinois today more than I ever have before,» he said. And in a joking reference to Chicago’s history of crooked politics, he reached down to a boy in the crowd of well-wishers and said: «I love you, man. You know, this is Chicago. You can vote for me. You’re old enough.»
Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, one of Blagojevich’s critics, was promptly sworn in as governor and said he would work to «restore the faith of the people of Illinois in the integrity of their government.»
Blagojevich’s name and picture were promptly stripped from the state’s official Web site, and his photo was removed from a display at the Capitol entrance. Quinn also canceled Blagojevich’s security detail.
Blagojevich, 52, had boycotted the first three days of the impeachment trial, calling the proceedings a kangaroo court. But on Thursday, he went before the Senate to beg for his job, delivering a 47-minute plea that was, by turns, defiant, humble and sentimental.
He argued, again, that he did nothing wrong, and warned that his impeachment would set a «dangerous and chilling precedent.»
«You haven’t proved a crime, and you can’t because it didn’t happen,» Blagojevich (pronounced blah-GOY’-uh-vich) told lawmakers. «How can you throw a governor out of office with insufficient and incomplete evidence?»
The verdict brought to an end what one lawmaker branded «the freak show» in Illinois. Over the past few weeks, Blagojevich found himself isolated, with almost the entire political establishment lined up against him. The crisis paralyzed state government and made Blagojevich and his helmet of lush, dark hair a punchline from coast to coast.
Many ordinary Illinoisans were glad to see him go.
«It’s very embarrassing. I think it’s a shame that with our city and Illinois, everybody thinks we’re all corrupt,» Gene Ciepierski, 54, said after watching the trial’s conclusion on a TV at Chicago’s beloved Billy Goat Tavern. «To think he would do something like that, it hurts more than anything.»
President Barack Obama pledged to give Quinn his full cooperation.
«Today ends a painful episode for Illinois,» Obama said Thursday night in a statement. «For months, the state had been crippled by a crisis of leadership. Now that cloud has lifted.»
In a solemn scene, more than 30 lawmakers rose one by one on the Senate floor to accuse Blagojevich of abusing his office and embarrassing the state. They denounced him as a hypocrite, saying he cynically tried to enrich himself and then posed as the brave protector of the poor and «wrapped himself in the constitution.»
They sprinkled their remarks with historical references, including Pearl Harbor’s «day of infamy» and «The whole world is watching» chant from the riots that broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. They cited Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus as they called for the governor’s removal.
«We have this thing called impeachment and it’s bleeping golden and we’ve used it the right way,» Democratic Sen. James Meeks of Chicago said during the debate, mocking Blagojevich’s expletive-laden words as captured by the FBI on a wiretap.
Blagojevich did not stick around to hear the vote. He took a state plane back to Chicago.
The verdict capped a head-spinning string of developments that began with his arrest by the FBI on Dec. 9. Federal prosecutors had been investigating Blagojevich’s administration for years, and some of his closest cronies have already been convicted.
The most spectacular allegation was that Blagojevich had been caught on wiretaps scheming to sell an appointment to Obama’s Senate seat for campaign cash or a plum job for himself or his wife.
«I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden, and I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I’m not gonna do it,» he was quoted as saying on a government wiretap.
Prosecutors also said he illegally pressured people to make campaign contributions and tried to get editorial writers fired from the Chicago Tribune for badmouthing him in print.
Obama himself, fresh from his historic election victory, was forced to look into the matter and issued a report concluding that no one in his inner circle had done anything wrong.
In the brash and often theatrical style that has infuriated fellow politicians for years, Blagojevich repeatedly refused to resign, reciting the poetry of Kipling and Tennyson and declaring at one point last month: «I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath. I have done nothing wrong.»
Even as lawmakers were deciding whether to launch an impeachment, Blagojevich defied the political establishment and stunned everyone by appointing a former Illinois attorney general, Roland Burris, to the very Senate seat he had been accused of trying to sell. Top Democrats on Capitol Hill eventually backed down and seated Burris.
As his trial got under way, Blagojevich launched a media blitz, rushing from one TV studio to another in New York to proclaim his innocence. He likened himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and to a cowboy in the hands of a Wild West lynch mob.
The impeachment case included not only the criminal charges against Blagojevich, but allegations he broke the law when it came to hiring state workers, expanded a health care program without legislative approval and spent $2.6 million on flu vaccine that went to waste. The 118-member House twice voted to impeach him, both times with only one «no» vote.
Seven other U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, the most recent being Arizona’s Evan Mecham, who was driven from office in 1988 for trying to thwart an investigation into a death threat allegedly made by an aide. Illinois never before impeached a governor, despite its long and rich history of graft.
Blagojevich grew up in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, the son of a Serbian immigrant steelworker. He married the daughter of a powerful city alderman and was schooled in the bare-knuckle, backroom politics of the infamous Chicago Machine, winning election to the Illinois House in 1992 and Congress in 1996.
In 2002, he was elected governor on a promise to clean up state government after former GOP Gov. George Ryan, who is serving six years in prison for graft. But he battled openly with lawmakers from his party, and scandal soon touched his administration.
Antoin «Tony» Rezko, a former top fundraiser for Blagojevich, was convicted of shaking down businesses seeking state contracts for campaign contributions. Witnesses testified that Blagojevich was aware of some of the strong-arm tactics. Rezko is said to be cooperating with prosecutors.
Quinn, the new governor, is a 60-year-old former state treasurer who has a reputation as a political gadfly and once led a successful effort to cut the size of the Illinois House.
«I want to say to the people of Illinois, the ordeal is over,» Quinn said.