Ali Ata


There is an hourlong break in the impeachment trial of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich as state senators caucus after hearing closing statements today. I think House prosecutor David Ellis made a strong case for impeachment and delivered a passionate rebuttal of the governor’s weak defense.

In his closing statement, Ellis outlined a pattern of abuse of power by the governor. He said that 31 recorded conversations reveal that Blagojevich wanted to sell President Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat. He said there are 15 recorded conversations between Blagojevich and his then-chief of staff, John Harris, discussing the governor’s desire to have Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired. He said the FBI wiretap recordings indicate that Blagojevich wanted to raise $2.5 million in shady contributions before a new ethics law took effect. Ellis mentioned three specific Blagojevich pay-to-play schemes: attempts to get $50,000 from a hospital executive in exchange for authorization of $8 million in pediatric care reimbursement funds, $500,000 from a highway contractor in connection to a $1.8 million tollway project, and campaign contributions from a racetrack owner in exchange for signing a bill favorable to the horse-racing industry. Ellis said there are 60 recorded conversations that captured the horse-racing bill scheme being set into motion.

Ellis also reminded senators of the federal testimonies of Ali Ata, who said he got a plum state job thanks to two contributions he made to the Blagojevich campaign, and Joseph Cari, who said Blagojevich told him he intended to use his political clout to get contributions. Ellis also described the ways Blagojevich broke the law by illegally expanding family health care and awarding money to a nonexistent company, which seems suspiciously like a money-laundering scheme.

As for Blagojevich, he finally appeared at his impeachment trial to make a closing statement in his defense, but he really didn’t say anything different from what he already said in numerous television interviews. He claimed there is no evidence proving he broke the law, which is a lie. Blagojevich said he “did a lot of things that were mostly right” and “always, the means were legal, and in most cases, the ends were moral.” Yet he presented no evidence to back up those claims and he refused to submit to cross-examination as a witness to his own actions.

In his rebuttal, Ellis said Blagojevich told Barbara Walters more on “The View” than he did to senators at his impeachment trial. Ellis noted that Blagojevich didn’t provide any explanations for the alleged schemes to sell a U.S. Senate seat and get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired. Those subjects will be addressed further in the criminal case against Blagojevich, but the impeachment trial takes into account Blagojevich’s ability to govern, not specifically whether he is a criminal.

The media circus surrounding Blagojevich and his alleged actions caused the federal government to revoke his Homeland Security clearance and block his access to funds from the $800 billion stimulus bill being considered by Congress. The state’s bond rating also was negatively affected by Blagojevich’s actions, resulting in higher interest rates for Illinois. Ellis referred to this all collectively as “the stain on this state from what the governor has done.”

The trial is set to resume at 2:15 p.m. CST. At that time each of the 59 state senators will get the opportunity to speak about the proceedings for as long as five minutes. Then the impeachment vote will be taken and, presumably, Blagojevich’s tenure as Illinois governor will officially be over.

Today the impeachment trial of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich focused on four FBI wiretap recordings of the governor and his allies discussing what sounds like an attempt to shake down Balmoral Park racetrack owner John Johnston for campaign contributions in exchange for Blagojevich signing a bill favorable to the horse-racing industry. After FBI Special Agent Daniel Cain was questioned about the recordings, state Sen. Chapin Rose recounted allegations of wrongdoing against Blagojevich that were made in guilty pleas and federal trial testimony by Ali Ata, a former state official and campaign contributor, and Joseph Cari, a former national Democratic fundraiser.

The Chicago Tribune has a comprehensive look at today’s proceedings on its Clout Street blog, which can be found here: http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/clout_st/2009/01/senate-trial-today-the-governor-on-tape.html.

Something I’d like to point out is that despite Blagojevich’s claims to the contrary all over the national airwaves, the governor is being tried for allegations of wrongdoing that have nothing to do with his alleged attempt to sell a U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder. Blagojevich is also lying when he says he can’t defend himself or call witnesses to testify on his behalf. There are some potential witnesses that would not be allowed because they may be part of the criminal case against the governor, but there are plenty of other people who are eligible to defend Blagojevich during the trial – though there might not be anyone who actually wants to be tied to the unpopular governor in that way.

The reality of the situation is that Blagojevich knows he won’t win, so he is blowing off the whole trial as if it is a miscarriage of justice, which is not true. If you listen to coverage of the trial, as I have been doing, you’ll know firsthand the case for impeachment is being laid out in a method similar to a court proceeding. That is why Blagojevich is going national with his pleas of unfairness toward him. There probably aren’t too many people outside Illinois watching the trial beyond the brief clips shown on the cable news networks. Blagojevich isn’t pleading his case at all in Illinois, because most of us here are better informed about the situation. He knows sympathy is more likely to be found outside the Land of Lincoln.

There is at least one Illinois lawmaker in Blagojevich’s corner, though. State Sen. Rickey Hendon, a black legislator from Chicago’s West Side, has expressed concerns that Blagojevich isn’t getting a fair trial in the Illinois Senate. Hendon went so far to say the black community supports the governor while the white community wants him booted from office. Seems another race card is being played from the deck used by Blagojevich and his allies.

Fortunately, the race card shouldn’t save Blagojevich’s political career. But it may keep him out of prison when it comes to a jury judging him in his criminal case.