Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attorney is offering a glimpse of his client’s unfolding legal strategy, saying he’ll challenge the lawfulness of court-ordered wiretaps at the heart of federal corruption allegations against the Democrat. But the two-term governor may go public to defend himself first.
With Blagojevich saying he’s itching to talk, perhaps as early as Friday, Chicago attorney Ed Genson continued bashing what’s gotten his client in a legal bind: FBI wiretaps that prosecutors say catch Blagojevich scheming to deal President-elect Barack Obama‘s vacant Senate seat for campaign cash or a plum job.
Genson told an Illinois House panel considering whether to impeach Blagojevich that its consideration of the recorded excerpts he cast as meaningless “jabbering” was inappropriate, if not illegal. “I think you’re using evidence that was illegally obtained,” he said Thursday.
After the committee recessed its hearing until next week, Genson told reporters he planned to go after the taped conversations in court at some point.
Members of the House panel pledged Thursday to do nothing that would interfere with the investigation by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. If Fitzgerald asks lawmakers not to interview certain witnesses, the panelists will abide by that, they said.
“The fact that no one has denied that the governor has said those things (on tape) is relevant. That evidence already is on our record,” said state Rep. Lou Lang, a suburban Chicago Democrat.
While hopeful that Fitzgerald lets the panel “go in some directions” with some potential witnesses in the criminal case, “if he shuts us down completely, this committee will deal with it,” Lang said.
Blagojevich’s first substantial public comments — other than snippets shouted to reporters camped outside his Chicago home since his arrest last week — could come as early as Friday, Genson said. The attorney didn’t sound keen on the prospect.
“I’m a lawyer by trade — I don’t like my clients to talk to anybody,” he said.
Genson said he expected federal grand jurors to eventually indict his client, which would likely unseal many of the documents in support of the charges, perhaps marking the point where his legal attack may truly begin.
“I’m talking that within the next few months the air will clear a little bit and we’ll be able to get access to all the things that we need to get access to,” he said. “And I’ll be able to look at those things.”
The impeachment process appears certain to grind on until then, possibly into next year, with or without Fitzgerald’s help. Without it, the committee probably will emphasize some lower-profile allegations of misconduct against Blagojevich: defying the Legislature, failing to honor reporters’ Freedom of Information requests, and trading state jobs and contracts for campaign contributions.
On Wednesday, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a request to declare him unfit to serve, and Genson made it clear that the governor is not going down without a fight.
Federal prosecutors’ case could be undermined — or at least greatly complicated — if Illinois lawmakers compel certain witnesses to testify. Following the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s, the convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter were thrown out after the courts determined that the cases against them were built too much on testimony they gave to Congress under a promise of immunity.
The impeachment committee sent Fitzgerald a letter Thursday formally asking for information about people mentioned by pseudonyms in the criminal complaint, and requesting his guidance on who can be called to testify. Fitzgerald refused to comment.
When the panel returns Monday, its members hope to discuss any guidelines or restrictions Fitzgerald may place on them.
Committee chairwoman Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat like the governor, noted that even before Blagojevich’s arrest last week, some lawmakers were calling for his impeachment.
“We’ve got plenty of evidence out there of questionable activity on the part of the governor,” she said.
Besides the Senate-seat-for-sale allegations, the governor was accused of trying to strong-arm the Chicago Tribune into firing editorial writers who criticized him and pressuring a hospital executive for campaign donations.
Outraged lawmakers appointed a committee to investigate Blagojevich and issue a recommendation on whether he should be impeached.
Genson had no comment on what restrictions Fitzgerald should place on the committee. “They do what they got to do and I do what I’ve got to do, and then what happens is what we’ve got to do,” Genson said.
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, which allows impeachment in cases of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the Illinois Constitution does not define an impeachable offense. No Illinois governor has ever been impeached, so lawmakers have little to go on.
Genson has complained about the lack of a clear standard and suggested he might raise the issue in court if the governor is impeached.
“I don’t know what the line is,” he told the committee. “The line should be based on evidence, should be based on due process, should be based on confrontation.”