Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich could still appoint someone to fill Barack Obama‘s U.S. Senate seat despite charges that he tried to barter it away for cash or a plum job in what prosecutors call “a political corruption crime spree.”
But it would take a lot of nerve and Blagojevich would have to hurry because state lawmakers are racing to snatch away his power to appoint a new senator and put it in the hands of voters.
“No appointment by this governor, under these circumstances, could produce a credible replacement,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday after the governor was arrested on charges of conspiring to commit fraud and soliciting bribery.
Until state lawmakers call a special election, though, Blagojevich still has the power to fill the Senate seat left vacant by President-elect Obama.
“He is still the sitting governor of Illinois today, now, and that is not something we have any say in or control of,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in unveiling corruption charges against the 52-year-old governor.
Obama was not accused of any wrongdoing. “I had no contact with the governor or his office, and so I was not aware of what was happening,” the president-elect said.
Prosecutors stepped in and had the governor arrested because he was on “what can only be called a political corruption crime spree,” Fitzgerald said.
Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said he is prepared to call the Illinois House into session as early as Monday to set a special election to fill the seat. Illinois Senate President Emil Jones said he had something similar in mind.
In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made it plain he didn’t want to seat anyone under such a cloud, saying the charges “are appalling and represent as serious a breach of the public trust as I have ever heard.”
Charged along with Blagojevich was his 46-year-old chief of staff, John Harris, who was accused of taking part in the schemes to enrich the governor.
The FBI said in court papers that Blagojevich was overheard conspiring to sell the Senate seat for campaign cash or lucrative jobs for himself or his wife, a real estate agent. He spoke of using the Senate appointment to land a job with a nonprofit foundation or a union-affiliated group, and even held out hope of getting named Obama’s secretary of health and human services or an ambassador.
According to court papers, the governor tried to make it known through emissaries, including union officials and fundraisers, that the seat could be had for the right price. Blagojevich allegedly had a salary in mind — $250,000 to $300,000 a year — and spoke of collecting half-million and million-dollar political contributions.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden,” prosecutors quoted Blagojevich as saying about the Senate appointment on federal bugs in his campaign office and wiretaps on his home telephone, “and I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I’m not gonna do it.”
Chicago FBI chief Robert Grant said even seasoned investigators were stunned by what they heard, particularly since the governor had known for at least three years that he was under investigation for alleged hiring fraud and clearly realized agents might be listening in.
Besides scheming to swap or sell the Senate seat, Blagojevich — a former congressman, state lawmaker and prosecutor — was accused of trying to strong-arm the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who had called for his impeachment. He also was accused of using the governor’s power over state business to raise campaign funds.
“But the most cynical behavior in all this, the most appalling, is the fact that Gov. Blagojevich tried to sell the appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Obama,” Fitzgerald said. “The conduct would make Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
Nothing in the court papers suggested Obama had any part in the discussions about selling the Senate seat or even knew of them. In fact, Blagojevich was overheard complaining at one point that Obama’s people are “not going to give me anything except appreciation.” He added: “(Expletive) them.”
Blagojevich was charged with two counts: conspiracy to commit fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, and solicitation to commit bribery, which is punishable by up 10 years. He was released on his own recognizance following an afternoon hearing.
The allegations “do nothing to impact the services, duties or function of the state,” according to a statement issued by Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero.
The governor’s attorney, Sheldon Sorosky, said he didn’t know of any immediate plans for the governor to resign. Blagojevich believes he didn’t do anything wrong and asks Illinois residents to have faith in him, Sorosky said.
“I suppose we will have to go to trial,” he said.
The head of the FBI’s office in Chicago said he phoned Blagojevich at 6 a.m. Tuesday, telling him of a warrant for his arrest and informing him there were two FBI agents at his door. Blagojevich’s first comment was, “Is this a joke?” Grant said. The governor was led away in handcuffs.
Blagojevich becomes the latest in a long line of Illinois governors to become engulfed in scandal. He was elected in 2002 as a reformer promising to clean up after Gov. George Ryan, who is serving six years in prison for graft. He was re-elected to another four-year term in 2006.
Long before Blagojevich faced criminal charges, his most vocal critics already discussed impeachment, citing a long list of potentially unconstitutional moves, slights to the General Assembly and ethics violations.
Impeachment is a two-step process. First, the Illinois House would consider whether there were grounds for impeachment, much like a grand jury deciding whether someone should be brought up on criminal charges. If a majority of the House voted yes, then the Senate would hold a trial.
It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict, and the only possible punishments are removal from office and disqualification from holding any other office.
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