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Blagojevich Impeachment Trial Underway As Governor Takes Case To Media

CHRISTOPHER WILLS   01/26/09 10:31 PM ET   AP

Blago

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Gov. Rod Blagojevich's impeachment trial opened Monday with a vacant chair reserved for the governor, who boycotted the proceedings and instead spent the day on the TV talk-show circuit in New York, complaining he is being railroaded.

"The fix is in," Blagojevich declared on ABC's "Good Morning America."

As the Illinois Senate assembled for the first impeachment trial of a U.S. governor in more than 20 years, David Ellis, the House-appointed prosecutor, told the chamber he will show that Blagojevich "repeatedly and utterly abused the powers and privileges of his office."

In one of his first orders of business, Ellis won approval from the Senate to summon as a witness an FBI agent who oversaw the profanity-laden wiretaps that led to Blagojevich's arrest on corruption charges last month.

With Blagojevich refusing to present a defense, Illinois senators could vote within days on whether to oust the 52-year-old Democrat on a variety of charges, including allegations he tried to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by President Barack Obama for a Cabinet position, a high paying job for himself or his wife or campaign funds.

State senators maintained the trial will be fair, despite Blagojevich's attacks on the process.

"We all took an oath to do justice according to the law. I know that everyone is taking the matter seriously and that no one will stand in the way of justice," said Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno, a Republican.

Blagojevich insists the remarks attributed to him have been taken out of context and that he has done nothing illegal.

Pressed on what context would justify using Obama's Senate seat to land a job for himself, Blagojevich said he didn't try to make an illegal trade.

"If you do an exchange of one for the other, that's wrong," he told ABC's "Nightline," according to a transcript of Monday night's show. "But if you have discussions about the future and down the road and what you might want to do once you're no longer governor in a few years, what's wrong with that? Those are natural discussions people have. ... Those are legitimate, honest discussions."

Blagojevich also appeared on "The View," talked to Geraldo Rivera of Fox News Channel, appeared in a taped interview on NBC's "Today" and in person on CNN's "Larry King Live." He was scheduled to appear on CBS' "The Early Show" on Tuesday.

"I'm here in New York because I can't get a fair hearing in Illinois," Blagojevich said between TV appearances.

The impeachment trial opened with the presiding judge, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald, telling senators: "This is a solemn and serious business we're about to engage in."

When Fitzgerald asked whether the governor was present, there was a long silence. The seats set aside for Blagojevich and his attorney were vacant.

Fitzgerald ordered the proceedings to continue as if Blagojevich had entered a plea of not guilty.

No other Illinois governor has been impeached, let alone convicted in a Senate trial. It would take a two-thirds majority _ or 40 of the 59 senators _ to remove Blagojevich. The Senate also could bar him from ever again holding office in Illinois.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn would replace him.

The outcome of his impeachment trial has no legal impact on the criminal case against Blagojevich. No trial date has been set on those charges.

Practically the entire political establishment has lined up against him. The last of two House votes on impeachment was 117-1, with his sister-in-law the only dissenter.

In his TV appearances, and in interviews over the past few days, the governor portrayed himself as the victim of a miscarriage of justice. He has likened himself to the hero of a Frank Capra movie and a Wild West cowboy in the hands of a lynch mob. He said he took solace from thinking of Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Blagojevich complained, among other things, that the trial is unfair because he was unable to call White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as a witness. Emanuel has said Blagojevich did nothing wrong when the two talked about Obama's Senate seat.

"I'm talking to Americans to let them know what's happening in the land of Lincoln," Blagojevich said during his media blitz. "If they can do this to a sitting governor, deny me to bring witnesses in to prove my innocence ... they can do it to you."

Neither the prosecution nor the defense is allowed to summon any witnesses whose testimony might interfere with federal prosecutors' criminal case against Blagojevich. But Blagojevich has not asked to call any witnesses at all, and said he does not plan to participate in any way.

"The suggestion that this is somehow unfair to the governor is the most self-serving, ludicrous statement I have ever heard in my life," state Sen. Matt Murphy, a Republican, said on "Good Morning America" during Blagojevich's appearance.

The impeachment case against Blagojevich also includes allegations he defied the Legislature, circumvented hiring laws and schemed to trade state contracts for campaign contributions.

In one of the most surprising interviews of the day, Blagojevich said he briefly considered naming Oprah Winfrey to the Senate.

Winfrey said she would have turned him down.

"I'm pretty amused by the whole thing," Winfrey told "The Gayle King Show" on Sirius XM Radio. "I think I could be senator, too. I'm just not interested."

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Associated Press writers Sara Kugler in New York, Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and Andrea Zelinski in Springfield contributed to this report.

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Filed by Ben Goldberger  |