Illinois lawmakers took the first step Monday toward removing Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office as the disgraced Democrat hired a bulldog defense attorney known for taking cases to trial.
Amid the developments, President-elect Barack Obama said a review by his own lawyer shows he had no direct contact with the governor about the appointment of a replacement for his Senate seat, and transition aides "did nothing inappropriate."
Controversy has swirled around the president-elect and his incoming White House chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, following Blagojevich's arrest last week on charges he schemed to trade Obama's Senate seat for personal gain.
Obama, fielding questions at a news conference, sidestepped when asked whether Emanuel had spoken with aides to the governor. He said the results of the investigation by his incoming White House counsel, Gregory Craig, would be released "in due course."
Blagojevich's political isolation intensified Monday evening, with the Illinois House voting 113-0 to create a bipartisan committee that will study the allegations against Blagojevich and recommend whether he should be impeached. Democrats in the Senate shelved action on a special election to fill Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat, for now leaving the decision in Blagojevich'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 House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and former co-chairman of Blagojevich's re-election campaign who has become one of the governor's fiercest critics.
Madigan canceled plans to consider a special election to replace Obama in the Senate because he said Democrats are split over the best way to fill the vacancy. Opponents of a special election cite its cost. Republicans harshly criticized leaving the power to appoint a senator in Blagojevich's hands.
"Why is it, when the whole world is watching, you can't change your ways at least for one day and let democracy rule?" said Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Greenville.
A Blagojevich spokesman said Monday the governor has not ruled out signing a bill to hold a special election to fill the seat. That was the first hint the embattled governor may loosen his grip on the position. Still, he continued his hold on the office, signing 11 bills, including one referenced on wiretaps in the criminal complaint against him.
Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday after being under federal investigation for three years. He is also accused of shaking down businesses seeking state deals and scheming to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired.
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 against the governor.
Among the bills signed by Blagojevich Monday was one that extends a fee paid by riverboat casinos to offset their impact on the horse racing industry — a measure prosecutors said in their complaint last week was of interest to unidentified "Lobbyist 1."
Blagojevich said during a wiretapped conversation Oct. 6 that Lobbyist 1 would approach a highway contractor for $500,000 in contributions to Blagojevich after the governor announced a $1.8 billion tollway deal, according to the complaint. Prosecutors had said they expected the bill to be signed as soon as this week.
Blagojevich spokesman Lucio Guerrero refused to comment about why the governor signed the bill. U.S. Attorney's office spokesman Randall Samborn had no comment.
Genson, whose past clients include newspaper baron Conrad Black and R&B singer R. Kelly, chided the media's coverage of the scandal and said the case has been "significantly exaggerated." Genson said Blagojevich had no plans to step down.
"He's not stepping aside. He hasn't done anything wrong," Genson said Monday night as he left his office after meeting with Blagojevich.
As Blagojevich left Genson's office, he would only say, "There will be an appropriate time and place (to comment) ... I can't wait to talk to you guys."
In both the Kelly and Black cases, Genson took the allegations before a jury. He is no stranger to political corruption cases, having represented former Gov. George Ryan's top aide, Scott Fawell, who was sent to prison for 6 1/2 years for racketeering.
In the House, every lawmaker was declared a co-sponsor of the resolution to establish an impeachment committee. Still, there were objections from some Republicans that the committee would have a 12-9 Democratic majority.
The state 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 will 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.
The committee is to work through the holiday season, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. It is unclear how long it will take to make a recommendation.
Madigan was careful not to call for Blagojevich's resignation or say whether he thinks the governor should be impeached because he would preside over any impeachment debate.
Madigan often has clashed with Blagojevich, and his office produced a memo this year outlining all the arguments legislative candidates could make in favor of impeachment.
Despite a year of research into the subject, Madigan said he did not feel impeachment proceedings were justified until Blagojevich's arrest. He suggested the House impeachment review would focus more on Blagojevich's abuse of power and defiance of the Legislature than on the new criminal charges.
Madigan's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has asked the state Supreme Court to remove Blagojevich, claiming he is unfit to serve. Madigan said Sunday she expects word on whether the court will hear her request "probably just in a few days."
Lisa Madigan is considered one of the top Democratic candidates for governor in 2010.
Illinois Republicans plan to run television ads pressuring Democrats to approve a special election to replace Obama. If Blagojevich resigned, the power to appoint a new senator would go to Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn.
Quinn has repeatedly declined to put a date on how soon Blagojevich could be removed. But he said a successful impeachment could force Blagojevich from office by Jan. 14, the day the new General Assembly takes over.
Quinn urged Blagojevich to quit now.
"Governor Blagojevich should examine his conscience and decide today ... to leave office," Quinn said at an appearance in downtown Chicago.