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Blagojevich Misses Trial, Pleads Case On TV


This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Linda Wortheimer.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Steve Inskeep is on assignment. The impeachment trial for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich continues this morning. Illinois has never impeached a governor and in this case, that governor was a no-show. Instead, he's been offering his defense on national TV. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: As the impeachment trial began, chairs for Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his attorneys sat vacant. Presiding Judge Thomas Fitzgerald, the head of the Illinois Supreme Court, told the senators to continue as if the governor had entered a plea of not guilty.

(Soundbite of court hearing)

Judge THOMAS R. FITZGERALD (Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice): This is a solemn and serious business that we are about to engage in. Both you and I have taken an oath to do justice, in essence, to be fair. I know that I, and I'm sure that you, come to this chamber and these proceedings prepared to be true to that oath. So it should be.

CORLEY: Federal authorities charge Governor Blagojevich with trying to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama for money or favors. Other allegations accuse the governor of defying state lawmakers, circumventing hiring laws, and trading state contracts for campaign contributions. Prosecutor David Ellis says he'll show how the governor abused his power.

Mr. DAVID ELLIS (State Prosecutor, Illinois): The audits will show that the governor liked splashy ideas, big ideas, headlines. But when it came to implementing his policies, he consistently violated state law and federal law, often jeopardizing the safety of our citizens in the process.

CORLEY: Governor Blagojevich calls the Senate's rules for this impeachment trial biased. He says the senators have already made up their minds to remove him from office. So while the trial moves forward in the Illinois capital, the governor has been pleading his case on network television shows.

(Soundbite from "Good Morning America")

Unknown woman: This morning, the embattled governor of Illinois. Did he try to sell the president's Senate seat?

CORLEY: On "Good Morning America," for example, Governor Blagojevich reiterated his claim that he has done nothing wrong.

(Soundbite from "Good Morning America")

Governor ROD BLAGOJEVICH (Democrat, Illinois): Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence? How is it that you can make a couple of allegations, take some conversations completely out of context? The whole story's not told.

CORLEY: Neither the governor nor the senators can call witnesses in this trial that may play a role in the criminal case against him. But the governor says he needs witnesses like White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has said publicly his conversation with the governor about the U.S. senate seat was appropriate.

Blagojevich says that affirms his claims of innocence. Today, he's scheduled to plead his case on TV again. It's lent an air of surrealness to the impeachment proceedings. And that was evident when the governor appeared on the ABC show "The View," and he was asked to imitate a former president.

(Soundbite from "The View")

Ms. JOY BEHAR (Co-Host, "The View"): Wait a minute. He does a fabulous Nixon impression. Do it for us.

Governor BLAGOJEVICH: Who said that?

Ms. BEHAR: Somebody told me. Come on. Just say, I am not a crook. Do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Governor BLAGOJEVICH: No, I'm not going to say that. I'm not going to go there.

Ms. BEHAR: Come on.

CORLEY: The governor did not take that bait, and he never directly answered questions about conversations the government secretly recorded. Last night, on CNN's "Larry King Live," a listener from Springfield, Illinois, wanted to know if there was more to the media interviews than the governor was letting on.

(Soundbite from "Larry King Live")

Unidentified Caller: Is this media blitz his attempt to taint his upcoming criminal trial, and to taint the prospective jury pool?

Governor BLAGOJEVICH: No. What I'm trying to do is - trying to explain to any fair-minded person across America, is that a governor elected twice by the people, I'm being denied the right to be able to show that accusations against me are not true.

CORLEY: Illinois lawmakers say the governor can summon witnesses to the impeachment trial, and even appear on his own behalf. Republican Senate Minority Leader Christine Redogno says with such a grave situation, the Senate wants to make sure everyone has their say.

Senator CHRISTINE REDOGNO (Republican Senate Minority Leader, Illinois): We're not trying to play getcha. We really want to have a fair hearing on both sides. So if the governor were to show up, you know, my guess is that we'd be anxious to hear him.

CORLEY: It will take 40 votes, two-thirds of the Illinois senate, for lawmakers to remove Governor Blagojevich from office. He says it's a given that he'll lose his seat. The Senate could also bar the governor from ever holding office in Illinois again. Cheryl Corley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
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