Impeached governor gets cold reception in Illinois Senate

Thursday, January 15, 2009

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- Hours after Gov. Rod Blagojevich convened a new Illinois Senate and urged lawmakers to "find the truth," senators took the first steps Wednesday toward a trial to determine whether the impeached governor is booted from office for corruption and abuse of power.

Meanwhile, the Illinois House conducted another impeachment vote, reaffirming the decision reached last week. The only dissent came from the governor's sister-in-law, newly sworn in as a state representative.

The Democratic governor presided over the first meeting of a Senate whose most urgent task is putting Blagojevich on trial. The senators reacted with silence to most of what Blagojevich said and did.

Before he left, Blagojevich alluded to his troubles and the upcoming Senate trial.

"These are challenging times, hard economic times facing the people of Illinois," he said. "I hope we can find a way, as we deal with other issues, to find the truth and sort things out."

Blagojevich then left through a back door to the Senate chamber. The Senate did not provide the usual "committee of escort" that would walk a governor out the front door to allow plenty of time for handshakes and backslaps.

Soon after, the Senate took the first formal steps toward a trial, approving rules for the proceedings and swearing in members as jurors. A summons was delivered to the governor's office to notify him of the proceedings.

Senators on both sides of the aisle fell silent and took their seats when two staffers wheeled in a dolly stacked with nine boxes of evidence and files from the House impeachment committee. They were followed by House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis, who read details of the governor's impeachment into the record.

Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Pontiac, said the silence and the desks adorned with flowers -- left over from the opening festivities earlier in the day -- were a bit eerie.

"Unless it's the resolution to memorialize the death of a colleague, I haven't heard it this quiet in the chambers," Rutherford said.

Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on a variety of charges, including accusations he schemed to benefit from his power to choose President-elect Barack Obama's replacement in the U.S. Senate. He has defied calls for his resignation, leading the Illinois House to impeach him -- a first for any Illinois governor.

The Senate hasn't conducted a trial since 1833, when it acquitted a judge who had been impeached for abuse of power. Blagojevich's trial is to begin Jan. 26 and could end by Feb. 4.

Blagojevich was all business during his hour or so presiding over the Senate.

The chief exception came after one senator arrived late after being stuck in an elevator and had to be sworn in separately, under the eyes of a battalion of reporters and photographers who were there to watch the governor.

"Congratulations. The whole country knows you now," Blagojevich said to Sen. Louis Viverito, prompting a chuckle from the senators.

Moments later, Viverito created one of many awkward moments when he mentioned the governor's upcoming impeachment trial while nominating Sen. John Cullerton to become the new Senate president. He praised Cullerton's ethics and said, "Today we have the opportunity to make one significant and meaningful step toward ... restoring the public's trust."

Blagojevich showed no reaction to that or a similar comment from Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, who said senators must take action to "ensure that the sound rule of law prevails both now and in the future."

The Illinois House, meanwhile, also began a new session. The first order of business was repeating last week's impeachment vote to ensure the process won't be complicated by the end of one General Assembly and the beginning of a new one.

"Our Inauguration Day is traditionally a day exclusively for celebration, but the oath we've just taken requires that we immediately take up the issue of the governor's lack of fidelity to the state constitution and its laws," said Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, D-Chicago, who headed the chamber's impeachment committee.

The first time around, impeachment passed 114-1. This time it was approved 117-1, with the only "no" coming from the governor's sister-in-law, Rep. Deborah Mell, D-Chicago. Her sister is married to Blagojevich.

"I have known the governor for more than 20 years and the charges in the impeachment were difficult to reconcile with the man and brother-in-law I know," Mell said in a statement afterward. "I could not in good conscience vote for his impeachment."

Secretary of State Jesse White, a fellow Democrat who had refused to certify Blagojevich's appointment of Roland Burris to the U.S. Senate, presided over the swearing-in of the new Illinois House.

White became a central figure in the drama over the appointment after U.S. Senate leaders refused to seat Burris, citing the lack of White's signature on his certification papers. White had refused to sign because of the criminal allegations against Blagojevich but insisted his signature was not required to make the appointment valid.

The Illinois Supreme Court agreed with him, and U.S. Senate Democrats eventually backed down, agreeing that Burris could be sworn in Thursday.

House Minority Leader Tom Cross, R-Oswego, said he will try to change state law to fill Senate vacancies by special election, rather than letting the governor decide. Democrats balked at a special election after Blagojevich's arrest, a decision that Republicans have criticized intensely.

Cross also said he will renew efforts to create a recall mechanism so the public can get rid of incompetent state officials.

Blagojevich, who quoted British poets in his last two public appearances since his arrest, turned this time to a favorite of Illinois politicians, Abraham Lincoln. As he finished his appearance before the Senate, he called on state senators to act "with malice toward none, with charity for all."

The reference is from Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the Civil War, when he implored his countrymen to "bind up the nation's wounds" and work toward peace.

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