SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Illinois lawmakers took the first step Monday toward removing Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office as the disgraced Democrat conferred with a bulldog defense attorney known for taking cases to trial.
House Speaker Michael Madigan appointed a bipartisan committee to review potential impeachment proceedings, the latest move by embarrassed politicians eager to force out Blagojevich and fill the Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
"We're going to proceed with all due speed, but we're going to make sure that what we do is done correctly," said Madigan, a Chicago Democrat and former co-chairman of Blagojevich's re-election campaign who has become one of the governor's fiercest critics.
"I've had a chance to get to know Mr. Blagojevich over six years, so I was not surprised," Madigan said of the corruption charges that allege the governor tried to put Obama's seat up for auction. "In light of what we've all seen ... how can anyone be surprised?"
Obama's team said an internal review showed that Obama's staff "was not involved in inappropriate discussions" with Blagojevich over the Senate seat. An Obama spokesman said details of the review would not be released until at least Dec. 22 at the request of prosecutors.
Also Monday, a Blagojevich spokesman said the governor has not ruled out signing a bill to hold a special election to fill the seat. That was the first hint the embattled governor may loosen his grip on the position.
Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday after being under federal investigation for three years. He is also accused of shaking down businesses seeking state deals and scheming to get Chicago Tribune editorial writers fired.
On Monday, he tried to appear gubernatorial by signing a bill giving tax credits to Hollywood movie studios who film in Illinois. But he also appeared to be digging in for the legal and professional battles ahead.
There were increasing signs Blagojevich would be represented by defense attorney Ed Genson, one of the city's best-known lawyers whose previous clients have included newspaper baron Conrad Black and R&B singer R. Kelly.
The governor was seen at the Chicago offices of the tough, street-smart attorney known for beguiling jurors with his plainspoken style. Genson also told The Associated Press that if hired, he would handle both the criminal and possible impeachment cases against Blagojevich.
"My point is, it's like everything you guys do: It's like a snowball running down the hill, and it's gotten really large. It's an avalanche now, and I think that the case that I've seen so far is significantly exaggerated," Genson said outside his office. "It's not what people think it is."
In both the Kelly and Black cases, Genson took the allegations before a jury. He is no stranger to political corruption cases, having represented former Gov. George Ryan's top aide, Scott Fawell, who was sent to prison for 6 1/2 years for racketeering.
Madigan said the impeachment committee's review will include the criminal charges against Blagojevich as well as a long list of other possible wrongdoing during his six years in office: abuse of power, taking action without legal authority, ignoring state laws and defying lawful requests for information from the General Assembly.
Madigan said the committee would work every day through the holiday season, except Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.
He was careful not to call for Blagojevich's resignation or say whether he thinks the governor should be impeached. Madigan said he would preside over any impeachment debate and so should stay neutral.
Madigan often has clashed with Blagojevich, and his office produced a memo this year outlining all the arguments legislative candidates could make in favor of impeachment.
Despite a year of research into the subject, Madigan said he did not feel impeachment proceedings were justified until Blagojevich's arrest. He suggested the House impeachment review would focus more on Blagojevich's abuse of power and defiance of the Legislature than on the new criminal charges.
The state constitution gives lawmakers broad authority to impeach a governor. The House would decide whether to file charges against the governor, and the Senate would ultimately rule on them.
Madigan's daughter, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, has asked the state Supreme Court to remove Blagojevich, claiming he is unfit to serve. Madigan said Sunday she expects word on whether the court will hear her request "probably just in a few days."
Lisa Madigan is considered one of the top Democratic candidates for governor in 2010.
Illinois Republicans plan to run television ads pressuring Democrats to approve a special election to replace Obama. If Blagojevich resigned, the power to appoint a new senator would go to Democratic Lt. Gov. Patrick Quinn.
Quinn has repeatedly declined to put a date on how soon Blagojevich could be removed. But he said a successful impeachment could force Blagojevich from office by Jan. 14, the day the new General Assembly takes over.
Quinn urged Blagojevich to quit now.
"Governor Blagojevich should examine his conscience and decide today ... to leave office," Quinn said at an appearance in downtown Chicago.
Opponents of a special election say it would be too expensive, costing between $30 million and $50 million.
Clerks say they could save money if the special election coincided with statewide municipal and township elections that are already scheduled for April 7. Lawmakers are expected to consider the option, but there's concern about leaving Obama's seat open for months to come.
Associated Press writers Mike Robinson and Deanna Bellandi in Chicago and John O'Connor in Springfield contributed to this report.