NEWS

State Capitol Q&A: How Blagojevich's arrest has affected state government

Ryan Keith

Illinois politics changed forever one year ago when federal authorities visited a Chicago home in the wee hours of the morning.

The arrest of then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Dec. 9, 2008, sent shockwaves throughout Illinois and the nation, adding another sad chapter to the book of political corruption written by the Land of Lincoln.

This week's State Capitol Q&A takes a closer look at what happened that day and in the year since, and what's up next in the Blagojevich saga.

Q. What were the highlights of that now infamous day?

A. Speculation had been riding high for weeks that a cloud of questions about corruption in his administration was about to take down the Chicago Democrat.           

Federal agents awoke the governor at his Chicago home with a courtesy call to inform him they were taking him into custody. Blagojevich reportedly asked the FBI agent if the call was a joke.

But even in this instant-news age, word of the shocking arrest took awhile to surface. The Chicago Tribune got wide credit for having the first word online. Radio and TV stations soon interrupted programming to provide the news.

Federal authorities leveled jaw-dropping accusations in a nationally televised news conference that day. Blagojevich, they said, was caught in recorded conversations trying to sell off the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by President-elect Barack Obama and attempting to gain financially and politically in other ways from his gubernatorial powers.

Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald called it "a sad day for government" and said Blagojevich's conduct "would make Lincoln roll over in his grave" at that press conference.

Blagojevich appeared in court later that day in a running suit. He refused to resign despite calls to do so from political allies and foes.

Q. What happened in those following weeks and months?

A. National media ridicule of another Illinois governor in criminal trouble skyrocketed.

But Blagojevich wouldn't budge, repeatedly telling media assembled outside his house he would have more to say later and the truth would come out eventually.

About a week after the arrest, House Speaker Michael Madigan formed a special investigative committee to consider Blagojevich's impeachment. That committee met at the Capitol for several weeks, sparring with Blagojevich's lawyers and recommending impeachment.

On Jan. 9, the Illinois House voted 114-1 to make Blagojevich the state's first impeached governor. Rep. Milton Patterson, D-Chicago, was the lone lawmaker to vote against impeachment; Rep. Elga Jeffries, D-Chicago, voted "present." 

The House vote led to a trial in the Senate, which Blagojevich, in a tour of national media outlets, claimed was biased against him. In the final hours of the trial, Blagojevich showed up to give an impassioned defense and urge senators not to kick him out of office before he could defend himself on the criminal charges. It didn't work.

The Senate voted 59-0 to remove Blagojevich and bar him from holding public office again. Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn was sworn in as governor shortly thereafter in the House chamber.

Blagojevich was indicted in April. State lawmakers approved several measures after the arrest aimed at strengthening ethics laws to rehabilitate the state's battered political image.

Q. What's the next step for all of this?

A. Blagojevich's trial on the criminal charges is supposed to start next summer in Chicago. That's expected to be another media circus, with the ex-governor and his team of lawyers likely putting on a show in his defense and Blagojevich saying he'll testify.

Look for Quinn to capitalize on Wednesday's one-year anniversary of the arrest by signing into law campaign finance reform. The measure lawmakers approved in the fall veto session sets new limits on donations to politicians, although critics argue it falls far short of real reform by shielding those who have the most power in government.

Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 orryan.keith@sj-r.com.