Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich
Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Enlarge
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. The Illinois House voted overwhelmingly Friday to impeach Gov. Rod Blagojevich, an unprecedented action that sets up a Senate trial on whether he should be thrown out for abuse of power, including allegations that he tried to sell President-elect Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat.
Impeachment required just 60 votes. The final result was 114-1.
Legislators accused the second-term Democratic governor of letting down the people of Illinois by letting ego and ambition drive his decisions.
"It's our duty to clean up the mess and stop the freak show that's become Illinois government," said Rep. Jack D. Franks, a Democrat.
Blagojevich was out jogging in his Chicago neighborhood when the vote came down. When he returned to his home, he compared his situation to a short story about a petty criminal called "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner."
"And that's what this (impeachment) is, by the way, a long-distance run," Blagojevich said, promising to say more at an afternoon news conference.
Blagojevich is the first governor impeached in Illinois' long and often sordid political history. He could become only the eighth U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office; the last was Arizona's Evan Mecham in 1988.
During the House's 90-minute debate on impeachment, no one spoke up to defend the governor. But Rep. Milton Patterson, a Chicago Democrat, made the sole vote against impeaching Blagojevich.
Patterson said he read the impeachment committee's report and wasn't comfortable voting against the governor. "I have no firsthand knowledge of any of the evidence," he said.
"I went by my own gut feeling, it's as simple as that," he said. "I read the report. If the government is going to indict him, let them go ahead and do that. That's their job and I'm doing my job."
Rep. Elga Jefferies, another Chicago Democrat, voted "present."
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on federal charges that include allegations he schemed to profit from his power to name Obama's replacement in the Senate. The criminal complaint included an FBI agent's sworn affidavit describing wiretaps that caught Blagojevich allegedly talking about what he could get for the seat, how to pressure people into making campaign contributions and more.
That arrest triggered impeachment hearings by a special House committee.
The committee on Thursday unanimously recommended impeachment based on the criminal charges but other allegations as well that Blagojevich expanded a health care program without proper authority, that he circumvented hiring laws to give jobs to political allies, that he spent millions of dollars on foreign flu vaccine that he knew wasn't needed and couldn't be brought into the country.
"The citizens of this state must have confidence that their governor will faithfully serve the people and put their interests before his own," the committee's report said. "It is with profound regret that the committee finds that our current governor has not done so."
Rep. Susana Mendoza, D-Chicago, noted the federal allegation that Blagojevich threatened to withhold state funds for children's health care unless he got a campaign donation from a hospital executive.
"Repugnant is too kind a word to describe that action," she said.
Blagojevich hasn't been convicted of any crime, but House members said that doesn't stop them from acting on the evidence they have, particularly since some of the impeachment charges don't involve criminal matters.
Blagojevich has denied the criminal charges. He criticized the House impeachment process as biased and said a Senate trial would produce a different result.
But he didn't testify before the House impeachment committee and hasn't offered an explanation for the federal charges.
"His silence in this great matter is deafening," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat.
Three men who served as Illinois governor since the late 1960s went to prison after they left office, including Blagojevich's immediate predecessor, George Ryan, who is now behind bars. But Blagojevich is the first to be impeached.
The Illinois Constitution lays out no standard of proof to be met for removing an impeached governor, other than that senators must "do justice according to law."
The Illinois Senate is working to draft rules for a trial, which could begin as early as next week. The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court will preside over the proceedings.