SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - State lawmakers took the first step yesterday toward removing Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich from office, and President-elect Barack Obama said an internal review showed that he had had no contact with Blagojevich about the appointment of a replacement for his U.S. Senate seat and that transition aides did nothing inappropriate.
Obama said he was holding off for a week on releasing the findings of the review by his incoming White House counsel, Gregory Craig, at the request of the office of U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who released a statement confirming that request.
"I would ask for your patience because I do not want to interfere with an ongoing investigation," Obama said in reply to a question at a Chicago news conference.
Blagojevich was arrested last week, accused of scheming to trade Obama's Senate seat for personal gain. The governor, who is also accused of shaking down businesses and scheming to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired, hired a bulldog defense attorney known for taking cases to trial and told reporters yesterday, "I can't wait to talk to you guys."
Blagojevich's isolation intensified last evening, as the state House, under the leadership of Speaker Michael Madigan, voted 113-0 to create a bipartisan committee that will study the allegations against him and recommend whether he should be impeached. But Democrats shelved action on a special election to fill Obama's U.S. Senate seat, for now leaving the appointment power in the governor's hands.
"We ought to move as quickly as possible to correct our problems and to get ourselves on a track where we can do what we're supposed to do for the people of Illinois," said Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and former cochairman of Blagojevich's reelection campaign, who has become one of the governor's fiercest critics.
At the Capitol, Madigan canceled plans to consider a special election, saying Democrats were split over the best way to fill the Senate vacancy.
Republicans harshly criticized the decision. "Why is it, when the whole world is watching, you can't change your ways at least for one day and let democracy rule?" State Rep. Ron Stephens asked.
Illinois Republicans plan to run television ads seeking to pressure Democrats to approve a special election. Opponents of such an election have said it would be too expensive, costing $30 million to $50 million statewide.
A Blagojevich spokesman said earlier yesterday that the governor had not ruled out signing a bill to hold a special election.
The two-term governor continued to conduct business yesterday, signing 11 bills, including one involving riverboat-casino fees that was referenced on wiretaps in the criminal complaint against him.
Chicago attorney Ed Genson, a tough, street-smart lawyer known for beguiling jurors with his plainspoken style, confirmed he would represent Blagojevich. He has said he would handle both the criminal and possible impeachment cases.
Genson, whose past clients include newspaper baron Conrad Black and R&B singer R. Kelly, chided the media's coverage of the scandal.
"My point is, it's like everything you guys do," Genson said outside his office. "It's like a snowball running down the hill, and it's gotten really large. It's an avalanche now, and I think that the case that I've seen so far is significantly exaggerated. It's not what people think it is."
Blagojevich declined to comment as he left Genson's office last night, saying: "There will be an appropriate time and place.. . . I can't wait to talk to you guys and to have a chance to be able to say the things I'm looking forward to saying."
In the Supreme Court
In the state House, every lawmaker was declared a cosponsor of the resolution to establish an impeachment committee. Still, some Republicans objected that the committee would have a 12-9 Democratic majority.
The Illinois constitution gives lawmakers broad authority to impeach a governor. The House would decide whether to file charges against the governor, and the Senate would ultimately rule on them.
Madigan said the impeachment committee's review would include the criminal charges against Blagojevich as well as a long list of other possible wrongdoing during his six years in office: abuse of power, taking action without legal authority, ignoring state laws, and defying lawful requests for information from the General Assembly.
He said the committee would work every day through the holiday season, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. It is unclear how long it will take to make a recommendation.
The speaker was careful not to call for Blagojevich's resignation or to say whether he believed the governor should be impeached, because he would preside over any impeachment debate.
Madigan's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has asked the state Supreme Court to remove Blagojevich, contending he is unfit to serve. She said Sunday that she expected word on whether the court would hear her request "probably just in a few days."
She is considered one of the top Democratic candidates for governor in 2010.
If Blagojevich were to resign, the power to appoint a new senator would go to Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn.
Quinn said a successful impeachment could force the governor from office by Jan. 14, the day the new General Assembly takes over. He urged Blagojevich yesterday to "examine his conscience" and quit now.