CHICAGO, Dec 16 – Illinois lawmakers have moved toward impeaching their governor, whose alleged efforts to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat have cast a shadow over the president-elect’s transition to power.,
Illinois state house speaker Michael Madigan vowed to move "with all due speed" to investigate allegations that Governor Rod Blagojevich abused his power in what prosecutors called a "political corruption crime spree."
Obama, elected to represent Illinois in the US Senate in 2004, resigned his seat after winning the November 4 presidential election, and his replacement would normally be appointed by the governor.
But legislators launched a hastily called session Monday to discuss holding a special election to take the appointment out of Blagojevich’s hands, as impeachment proceedings could take months.
The Illinois attorney general has also asked the state supreme court to temporarily remove Blagojevich from office or else strip him of the bulk of his powers in the wake of his arrest last week on bribery and fraud charges.
Obama has said he is "absolutely certain" that no member of his team engaged in any deal making, but the scandal has proven an unwelcome distraction as he prepares to take office on January 20.
The Republican Party responded with a new advertisement declaring that "questions remain" over Obama’s links to the disgraced Democratic governor.
Reports have also surfaced that Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel contacted Blagojevich to suggest names to take over the seat, but he has not been accused of any wrongdoing.
Transcripts of FBI wiretaps released by federal prosecutors showed Obama’s staff were offering nothing more than "appreciation" to Blagojevich — much to the foul-mouthed frustration of the governor, who wanted a cabinet post at the very least.
Obama said Monday his transition team had no "inappropriate" dealings with the corruption-tainted governor of Illinois but will defer the release on an internal review at the request of prosecutors.
"There is nothing in the review that was presented to me that in any way contradicted my earlier statements that this appalling set of circumstances that we’ve seen arise had nothing to do with my office," Obama said at a press conference.
Blagojevich has refused to resign after his arrest in an FBI investigation that accuses him of a staggering pattern of corruption, including refusing to free up funds for a children’s hospital until he received a 50,000-dollar campaign contribution.
The legislature has been "reviewing grounds for impeachment for about a year" but did not deem that impeachment was "appropriate" until prosecutors released the 76-page criminal complaint on Tuesday, state house speaker Madigan said.
"We have given the governor six days to resign," Madigan told a press conference.
"He has declined to take the opportunity to resign. I think it’s time that we move forward with the appointment of a committee of inquiry that could lead to impeachment."
Madigan said despite his long-standing opposition to Blagojevich he believed it was important not to "rush to judgment" and to ensure the governor’s rights are protected in what will essentially be a trial before the state senate.
Obama has indicated support for a special election but it could take months to organize, and some state Democrats fear losing the seat to the Republicans.
Another option up for debate in the state legislature is for a temporary senator to be appointed until a special election takes place, possibly in April.
As it stands, the Democrats will control 58 seats in the new US Senate assembling in January, two short of a "super-majority" capable of defeating Republican blocking tactics in the 100-seat chamber.
Blagojevich’s chief of staff John Harris, who was also charged with fraud and solicitation of bribery, tendered his resignation on Friday.
Blagojevich has refused to comment publicly on the charges, telling reporters only that he will speak to them "at an appropriate time."
He returned to work again on Monday after releasing a statement Friday saying he was "pleased" to have signed a bill into law providing insurance coverage to parents of children with autism.
However, his spokesman said Monday he would consider approving a bill calling for a special election for the senate seat.