SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Gov. Rod Blagojevich was impeached Friday by Illinois lawmakers furious that he turned state government into a “freak show,” setting the stage for an unprecedented trial in the state Senate that could get him thrown out of office.
The 114-1 vote in the Illinois House came exactly a month after Blagojevich’s arrest on charges that included trying to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. The debate took less than 90 minutes, and not a single legislator rose in defense of the governor, who was jogging in the snow in Chicago.
Later, a defiant Blagojevich insisted again that he committed no crime, and declared: “I’m going to fight every step of the way.” He portrayed himself as a victim of political payback by the House for his efforts to extend health care and other relief to the ordinary people of Illinois.
“The causes of the impeachment are because I’ve done things to fight for families,” the 52-year-old Democrat said at a news conference where he surrounded himself with people that spokesman Lucio Guerrero said had benefited from the state’s expanded health care program, including a man in a wheelchair and a kidney transplant recipient. He took no questions.
Blagojevich becomes the first U.S. governor in more than 20 years to be impeached. Arizona’s Evan Mecham was impeached, convicted and removed from office in 1988 for trying to thwart an investigation into a death threat allegedly made by an aide.
No other Illinois governor has ever been impeached, despite the state’s storied history of graft. Blagojevich’s immediate predecessor, George Ryan, is behind bars for corruption.
The Senate trial is set to begin Jan. 26. While impeachment in the House required only a simple majority, or 60 votes, a two-thirds vote would be needed for conviction in the 59-member Senate.
During the House debate, lawmakers complained that Blagojevich had made a laughingstock out of the state.
“It’s our duty to clean up the mess and stop the freak show that’s become Illinois government,” said Democratic Rep. Jack Franks.
The criminal case against the governor included charges he tried to sell the Senate seat for campaign cash or a plum position for himself or his wife, and pressured people into making campaign contributions.
The impeachment case was based on the criminal charges plus other allegations – that Blagojevich expanded a health care program without authority, that he circumvented hiring laws to give jobs to political allies, and that he spent millions on flu vaccines that he knew couldn’t be brought into the country.
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