FBI Tapes Might Elude Illinois Impeachment Panel

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CHICAGO – State legislators weighing evidence against Gov. Rod Blagojevich may finish their work before getting any tapes of the governor's conversations that were made secretly by the FBI, attorneys indicated Monday.

The House impeachment panel is racing to complete its job, possibly by the end of this week. But the efforts of federal prosecutors to give the panel some of the FBI tapes face a potential obstacle course in court that could take up several weeks.

"These tapes are relevant evidence; we'd like to have them," said David Ellis, a lawyer for the impeachment panel. But he said the panel could wrap up its work as early as this week, and "we have already gathered a large volume of evidence."

Blagojevich, 52, a two-term Democrat, is charged along with former Chief of Staff John Harris with a scheme to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama's election as president.

Blagojevich is also charged with illegally plotting to use his power as governor to squeeze roadbuilders, a harness racing executive and the head of a children's hospital, among others, for hefty campaign contributions.

Prosecutors propose to provide the impeachment panel with a few minutes of the extensive recordings the FBI made of the governor talking with aides and others.

As skirmishing got under way Monday, Blagojevich's chief defense counsel, Edward M. Genson, said he wanted all of the tapes released to the panel, not just the four brief ones that prosecutors offered.

"We are not going to ask that one tape, or two tapes, or three tapes or four tapes, be offered," Genson told Chief U.S. District Judge James F. Holderman. "We are going to ask that all of them be offered."

Such a proposal could force a time-consuming fight that in turn could delay the delivery of any of the tapes to the impeachment committee.

Genson declined to comment on his strategy after court. A spokesman for the government, Randall Samborn, also declined to comment on the direction of the case.

Other potential delays cropped up. At one point, Holderman suggested that attorneys tell the court by Jan. 20, long after the committee hopes to have its work done, whether they would approve releasing the tapes.

Holderman discarded that idea and set a fresh hearing for Thursday.

Members of the impeachment panel appeared unfazed by the possibility that any release of the tapes could come too late for them.

Rep. Frank Mautino, a Democrat from Spring Valley, said that if the tapes come too late they could always go to the Illinois Senate, which would take up impeachment if the House approves it.

"I don't think the committee should wait," said minority spokesman Jim Durkin, a Westchester Republican. The panel had "amassed a significant amount of information to make an informed decision," he said.

After the court hearing, attorney Daniel S. Reinberg said he believed his client, John Johnston, head of two Chicago-area harness racing tracks, was the person named in an FBI affidavit attached to the complaint as Contributor 1.

One of the tapes contains a conversation between Johnston and a lobbyist for the tracks, Lon Monk, a former top Blagojevich aide, Reinberg said. He said Monk is the person identified in the affidavit as Lobbyist 1.

The affidavit quotes Blagojevich and Lobbyist 1 as pressuring Contributor 1 for a campaign contribution at a time when key race track legislation was on his desk.

Attorney John P. Collins, who attended the hearing, declined to say whether he represented Monk or someone else. Reinberg said prosecutors told Johnston he is neither the subject nor a target of the federal investigation.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said that he would set up a special committee to determine how to rid state government of the endemic corruption that has plagued it for years.

The committee will be headed by attorney Patrick M. Collins, who as a former federal prosecutor sent former Gov. George Ryan to prison for racketeering.

As he spoke, former state Attorney General Roland Burris set off for Washington to claim the Senate seat that formerly belonged to Obama — even though top Democratic leaders in the Senate say they don't want to seat anyone appointed by Blagojevich.

Blagojevich named Burris to the seat last week.

"I am the junior senator, according to every law book in the nation," Burris said. He said he was "hoping and praying that I will be seated."

Blagojevich also picked March 3 for a special primary to fill the U.S. House seat left vacant by Rep. Rahm Emanuel's appointment as Obama's chief of staff. He set April 7 for the special election — the same day prosecutors face a deadline for obtaining an indictment of Blagojevich.


Associated Press writer John O'Connor in Springfield, Ill., contributed to this report.