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Impeachment Process Begins Against Ill. Governor

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne. Illinois lawmakers have taken the first steps towards impeaching Governor Rod Blagojevich. You'll remember that the governor was arrested a week ago on federal corruption charges. Yesterday he hired a prominent Chicago defense attorney to represent him, both in court and in impeachment hearings. NPR's David Schaper has the latest developments from the Illinois state Capitol in Springfield.

DAVID SCHAPER: The Illinois House voted 113 to nothing to establish a special impeachment committee to review how and on what grounds the Legislature could impeach Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich. The FBI arrested Blagojevich last Tuesday morning in his Chicago home, charging him with bribery, conspiracy, and fraud. Among the accusations, he tried to auction off the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Illinois Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

MICHAEL MADIGAN: We have given the governor six days to resign. And he's declined to take the opportunity to resign. I think it's time that we move forward with the appointment of a committee of inquiry that could lead to impeachment.

SCHAPER: The committee will consist of 12 Democrats and nine Republicans, and it begins meeting this morning. And it may meet almost every day over the next few weeks, except for the holidays. This special legislative session was also called to vote on setting a special election for Illinois' vacant Senate seat and to strip the governor of his authority to appoint whomever he wants. But Democrats shelved that bill, outraging Republicans.

The GOP is weakened in this state since the last governor from their party, George Ryan, was sent to jail on corruption charges. And Republicans hope this new scandal might revive them in the eyes of voters. On the House floor, GOP Representative David Reis chastised Democrats for blocking a vote on a special election.

DAVID REIS: Over 66 percent of the people say they want to have a say in the next appointed U.S. senator. But now you're afraid of losing a seat. That's what this all comes down to. You're afraid of losing a seat.

SCHAPER: Some Democrats admit the possibility of losing this seat is a concern, but so too is the cost of a special election, around $30 million, as the state faces a $2 billion budget deficit. They say if impeachment efforts fail, a special election still could be called later. But even some Democrats were disappointed the special election was shelved, including Representative Jack Franks.

JACK FRANKS: Let's not let that overshadow the much more important issue today, which was impeachment and the speaker's decision to go forward. Because if we're going to piecemeal, looking at each individual power that we should take from the governor, what that tells me is that he should be removed from office completely.

SCHAPER: Illinois' Constitution gives state lawmakers broad discretion to impeach a governor and doesn't require the Legislature prove Blagojevich committed a crime. Chicago Democrat Barbara Flynn Currie will chair the special impeachment committee.

BARBARA FLYNN CURRIE: I think that you find that there's generally thought to be a fairly high standard, that is to say the fact that someone's a mope probably doesn't qualify. Someone has to really violate the public trust, has to abuse power in significant ways, misuse the office in significant ways.

SCHAPER: Currie says the committee will try to act quickly, but correctly, and afford the governor due process. Blagojevich remains defiant, hiring prominent Chicago attorney Ed Genson to defend him. Genson told reporters in Chicago last night that the governor is, quote, "not stepping aside. He hasn't done anything wrong. We're going to fight this case." And Governor Blagojevich again went to work Monday as if it was any other day, signing into law several bills, including one to benefit Illinois' horseracing industry. It's a bill federal prosecutors say they caught the governor on tape threatening to not sign until a lobbyist supporting the measure ponied up with campaign contributions. David Schaper, NPR News, in Springfield, Illinois. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.