Prosecutor puts limits on probe of Ill. gov.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Federal prosecutors have asked an Illinois House impeachment committee not to delve into the criminal charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a request that could hasten a decision on whether to boot Blagojevich from office

In a letter released Tuesday, federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald warned the committee that interviewing witnesses and discussing documents related to the charges against Blagojevich could undermine his criminal investigation.

He declined to give the committee documents and other information about his probe, but left open the possibility of giving the committee copies of Blagojevich conversations captured by federal wiretaps.

"Any inquiry into these topics, as well as the taking of testimony from present and former members of the governor's staff, could significantly compromise the ongoing criminal investigation," Fitzgerald wrote.

Committee members had promised to abide by prosecutors' recommendations about what should be off-limits, so Fitzgerald's request means the panel won't conduct its own investigation of possible criminal activity. They have said that if they can't pursue the criminal charges, then their fact-gathering work is largely done.

State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the committee chairwoman, said a decision on whether to recommend an impeachment vote by the full House could come the week of Jan. 5.

"We're not prepared to drag our feet," Currie said at a news conference Monday.

The committee has been taking testimony on other possible grounds for impeachment -- that Blagojevich defied legislative orders, spent money without authorization, defied rules for issuing leases and contracts and gave jobs and board memberships to campaign donors.

But it could still weigh the criminal charges against the governor, even if it doesn't conduct its own review. Members say they'll examine evidence outlined in the federal complaint against Blagojevich, including recordings of conversations in which he allegedly discussed how to benefit from appointing a new U.S. senator.

Blagojevich attorney Ed Genson has argued it's improper for the committee to consider the charges or the excerpts from wiretaps. And he says the evidence presented to the committee does not justify removing the governor.

"I don't think the evidence in this case should call for impeachment," attorney Ed Genson said after Monday's hearing. "There are no facts here. All we have are inferences."

Genson did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges, triggering an avalanche of demands for his resignation. Blagojevich maintains he is innocent and will stay in office to fight the accusations.

The committee will meet again next week so Blagojevich's lawyer can respond to earlier witnesses.

Should it recommend a full House vote and the House vote to impeach Blagojevich, the state Senate would hold a trial to decide if the governor should be removed from office.

On the Net: U.S. attorney's letter:

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