SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – After weeks of shocking twists and turns, the conclusion of Rod Blagojevich’s tenure as Illinois governor offered no surprises at all.
Blagojevich addressed his Senate impeachment trial and offered familiar lines: He was innocent. The trial rules were unfair. His goal always was to help people.
Then the Senate did what was expected and voted to throw Blagojevich out of office. And on an identical 59-0 roll call, it barred the two-term Democrat from ever again holding public office in the state.
“He failed the test of character. He is beneath the dignity of the state of Illinois. He is no longer worthy to be our governor,” said Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican from suburban Chicago.
Blagojevich, accused of trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat, becomes the first U.S. governor in more than 20 years to be removed by impeachment.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, one of Blagojevich’s critics, was promptly sworn in as governor. “The ordeal is over,” declared Quinn, 60.
Blagojevich’s troubles, however, are not over. Federal prosecutors are drawing up an indictment against him on corruption charges.
Outside his Chicago home Thursday night, Blagojevich vowed to “keep fighting to clear my name,” and added: “Give me a chance to show you that I haven’t let you down.”
Blagojevich, 52, had boycotted the first three days of the impeachment trial, calling the proceedings a kangaroo court. But on Thursday, he went before the Senate to fight for his job, delivering a 47-minute plea that was, by turns, defiant, humble and sentimental.
“You haven’t proved a crime, and you can’t because it didn’t happen,” Blagojevich (pronounced blah-GOY’-uh-vich) told lawmakers. “How can you throw a governor out of office with insufficient and incomplete evidence?”
The verdict brought to an end what one lawmaker branded “the freak show” in Illinois. Over the past few weeks, Blagojevich found himself isolated, with almost the entire political establishment lined up against him. The crisis paralyzed state government and made Blagojevich and his helmet of lush, dark hair a punchline from coast to coast.
Many ordinary Illinoisans were glad to see him go.
“It’s very embarrassing. I think it’s a shame that with our city and Illinois, everybody thinks we’re all corrupt,” Gene Ciepierski, 54, said after watching the trial’s conclusion on a TV at Chicago’s beloved Billy Goat Tavern. “To think he would do something like that, it hurts more than anything.”
In a solemn scene, more than 30 lawmakers rose one by one on the Senate floor to accuse Blagojevich of abusing his office and embarrassing the state. They denounced him as a hypocrite, saying he cynically tried to enrich himself and then posed as the brave protector of the poor and “wrapped himself in the constitution.”
Blagojevich did not stick around to hear the vote. He took a state plane back to Chicago.
He did, however, use his last day in office to grant clemency to a prominent Chicago real estate developer and a former drug dealer, just hours before the vote to oust him.
The verdict capped a head-spinning string of developments that began with his arrest by the FBI on Dec. 9. Federal prosecutors had been investigating Blagojevich’s administration for years, and some of his closest cronies already have been convicted.
The most spectacular allegation was that Blagojevich had been caught on wiretaps scheming to sell an appointment to Obama’s Senate seat for campaign cash or a plum job for himself or his wife.
“I’ve got this thing and it’s (expletive) golden, and I’m just not giving it up for (expletive) nothing. I’m not gonna do it,” he was quoted as saying on a government wiretap.
Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, mocked Blagojevich during debate: “We have this thing called impeachment and it’s bleeping golden and we’ve used it the right way.”
Prosecutors also said Blagojevich illegally pressured people to make campaign contributions and tried to get editorial writers fired from the Chicago Tribune for badmouthing him in print.
Obama himself, fresh from his historic election victory, was forced to look into the matter and issued a report concluding that no one in his inner circle had done anything wrong.
“Today ends a painful episode for Illinois,” the president said in a Thursday night statement. “For months, the state had been crippled by a crisis of leadership. Now that cloud has lifted.”
Even as lawmakers were deciding whether to launch an impeachment, Blagojevich defied the political establishment by appointing a former Illinois attorney general, Roland Burris, to the very Senate seat he had been accused of trying to sell. Top Democrats on Capitol Hill eventually backed down and seated Burris.
As his trial got under way, Blagojevich launched a media blitz, rushing from one TV studio to another in New York to proclaim his innocence. He likened himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and to a cowboy in the hands of a Wild West lynch mob.
The impeachment case included not only the criminal charges against Blagojevich, but allegations he broke the law when it came to hiring state workers, expanded a health care program without legislative approval and spent $2.6 million on flu vaccine that went to waste. The 118-member House twice voted to impeach him, both times with only one “no” vote.
Seven other U.S. governors have been removed by impeachment, the most recent being Arizona’s Evan Mecham in 1988. Illinois never before impeached a governor, despite its long and rich history of graft.
By Thursday night, Blagojevich’s name and picture had disappeared from the state’s official Web site. Instead, an unobtrusive “Pat Quinn, Governor” was in the upper right corner.
Associated Press writers Deanna Bellandi, John O’Connor and Andrea Zelinski in Springfield and Don Babwin and Carla K. Johnson in Chicago contributed to this report.