An impeachment inquiry against Gov. Rod Blagojevich hit a speed bump shortly after getting under way, with state lawmakers seeking guidance from federal prosecutors and postponing any real action until the governor’s attorney arrives.
The attorney, Ed Genson, planned to attend Wednesday’s meeting of a special Illinois House committee reviewing potential impeachment and may provide the first hint of the embattled Democratic governor’s strategy.
Genson, a famously tough Chicago trial attorney, could signal that his legal team will participate fully in the committee’s work by cross-examining witnesses and arguing Blagojevich’s case. Or he could challenge the committee, perhaps arguing its review shouldn’t go forward for some reason.
The impeachment committee met Tuesday for the first time but soon adjourned. Members didn’t want to begin in earnest until the governor’s lawyer could be present, said the chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie.
Currie also said she’s awaiting a response from U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald about whether the panel will be allowed to hear testimony from certain witnesses without compromising the federal corruption case against Blagojevich. She said she has no idea when Fitzgerald will reply.
The Illinois Senate also adjourned Tuesday without considering a plan to fill President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant U.S. Senate seat through a special election. Republicans accused the Democratic majority of trying to hold onto the seat by denying the public a right to vote.
Blagojevich was arrested by FBI agents last week on charges that include scheming to appoint Obama’s replacement based on who offered the governor the best political or financial deal.
The impeachment committee will recommend to the full House whether to move forward with impeachment. Members said Tuesday they will take the job seriously.
"Frontier justice will not prevail in this proceeding. A rush to judgment does not serve the people of the state well," said Currie, a Chicago Democrat.
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, said members must not be swayed by their personal feelings about the governor.
"It’s important that all of us put those attitudes, those prejudices aside. We should not prejudge at this moment," Durkin said.
Criminal charges aside, the committee will weigh other allegations against Blagojevich. Lawmakers have long accused the Chicago Democrat of abusing his power by spending money without legislative approval, defying legislative orders and denying lawmakers information they should receive.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday how many witnesses would be called to testify before the committee. But at least one name became public: Terry Mutchler, formerly an expert on public information disputes for the Illinois attorney general. She planned to testify Thursday about "dozens of incidents" in which Blagojevich aides withheld records that should have been public.
Genson did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Democrats’ decision to drop plans for a special Senate election triggered another round of criticism from the GOP.
Republicans say Democrats are simply afraid of losing the election, particularly if a backlash arises from the charges against Blagojevich. They claim Democrats want to hold onto the power to have a governor appoint the next senator.
But even if Blagojevich steps aside and Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn makes the appointment, Republicans argue the next senator will be tainted.
Quinn has never been a close Blagojevich ally and has a long record as an advocate of good government. But Democratic voters paired him with Blagojevich in two elections, and he has sometimes defended the governor’s honesty.
"Whoever gets appointed is going to be wearing the stench of this scandal for two years and beyond," said state Sen. Christine Radogno, a Republican from Lemont.
Democrats say their opposition is a matter of good government. An election would cost up to $50 million and leave the state with a Senate vacancy until at least April. They say an appointment would be better for the state.
Quinn initially supported a special election but now prefers making an appointment, although he has suggested it be short-term until an election is held.
The Illinois Republican Party has criticized Quinn in a television ad that says, "The people of Illinois deserve better than another political power grab." The party wouldn’t say how much it’s spending on the ad.
The president-elect was pulled into the dispute Tuesday when Obama refused to say whether he supports a special election. Obama "punted" rather than take a position on a vital issue, the RNC said.
If a Democratic governor appoints Obama’s replacement, the Senate seat is certain to stay in Democratic hands. Although Illinois is a solidly Democratic state, the public anger toward the Democratic governor means a GOP victory would not be out of the question.
Blagojevich kept up his routine Tuesday of leaving for his Chicago office without commenting to reporters parked outside his home.
Minutes later, a Chicago judge delayed indefinitely the sentencing of jailed political fundraiser Antoin "Tony" Rezko, probably adding to Blagojevich’s problems. The delay appeared to signal that Rezko’s on-again, off-again relationship with the federal prosecutors investigating Illinois government was on again.
Rezko, who raised more than $1 million for Blagojevich’s campaign fund, was a major adviser to the governor and as a member of the inner circle could give federal investigators an extraordinary glimpse into the burgeoning political scandal.
Associated Press writers Jim Suhr and John O’Connor in Springfield and Michael Tarm in Chicago contributed to this report.