CHICAGO - The Illinois Senate narrowly rejected a measure yesterday to put on the November ballot a constitutional amendment to allow for a voter recall of elected officials - an effort aimed at Gov. Rod Blagojevich amid an ongoing federal corruption probe and allegations that he rewarded a campaign contributor with a top state post.
The Senate, controlled by Democrats, rejected the constitutional amendment question in a 33-19 vote, just a few votes short of the 36-person super-majority required to put it on the ballot. The measure had advanced from committee a day earlier with a near unanimous endorsement - the exception being Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago. Jones has remained loyal to the Democratic governor.
Jones warned fellow lawmakers to "be careful at what you put forth," saying elected officials sometimes have to make decisions unpopular with the voters. The House's Democratic leadership had said it would meet through the weekend to pass the measure if it had succeeded in the Senate. The governor's signature would not be needed to put the question to voters who could then decide whether to join the 18 other states that provide some form of voter recall.
Supporters said the proposal was likely dead as lawmakers needed to approve it by May 4 for it to appear on the November ballot. The House had previously approved a more limited recall measure, but it had languished in the Senate for weeks despite pressure from some supporters including Illinois Lieut. Gov. Pat Quinn and newspaper editorials to put the amendment to a legislative vote. The revised measure would cover state and local government officials and judges.
Pressure had mounted on Jones to advance the bill after stunning allegations surfaced last week from the former executive director of the state's largest conduit issuer, the Illinois Finance Authority. In a plea agreement, Ali Ata said he was rewarded with his post for making more than $50,000 in campaign contributions and that he had spoken directly with the governor about potential jobs for being a good "friend" and "supporter."
Ata testified at the federal trial yesterday of Antoin Rezko, a former adviser and fundraiser to the governor, who is charged with shaking down companies that wanted to do investment business with the state and hospitals seeking regulatory approval for new projects, to enrich himself and Blagojevich's campaign coffers.
The allegations in the federal probe of state corruption come on top of an already strained relationship between the governor and members of his party over the state's budget, spending, and policy issues. Lawmakers have accused the governor of absenteeism, arrogance, and reneging on pledges. The governor has countered that he is doing the work of the people.
Separately, legislators said they were hopeful ethics reforms could win approval over the next week. Senate and House negotiators resolved differences the two chambers' had with a proposal aimed at curtailing pay-to-play in state government - another measure that some supporters believe has advanced because of the attention focused on the Rezko trial.
In a bipartisan agreement announced Wednesday, lawmakers appear to have a veto-proof majority. The governor has criticized the legislation saying it is not strong enough.
"The governor needs to sign this bill as is," state Comptroller Dan Hynes said at a news conference announcing the agreement.
The reforms would ban individuals or companies that hold or are bidding on a contract worth at least $50,000 from making campaign contributions to any elected officials with control over the contract for two years. Partial owners in the company with at least a 7.5% stake would also be banned from contributing.
To improve reporting transparency, companies with contracts worth at least $50,000 would have to register with the Board of Elections and report contributions to political committees and to elected officials. Businesses that violate the rules would lose their contracts. The new rules, which would cover law firms that do bond work with the state and financial advisory firms, would take effect next year if approved.
In testimony yesterday at Rezko's trial in Chicago, Ata said he held two fundraisers for the governor and in a meeting with Blagojecvich after he made a $25,000 contribution, Blagojevich allegedly asked him if he had discussed job opportunities with Rezko.
Federal prosecutors said last week that Ata has alleged that Rezko told him not to worry about the growing federal corruption probe because efforts were underway to get the U.S. attorney here - Patrick Fitzgerald - fired. Rezko allegedly said Illinois Republican consultant Robert Kjellander, who is a Republican national committeeman and close to President Bush's former political adviser, Karl Rove, was leading the effort. Kjellander received a controversial $800,000 consulting fee from Bear, Stearns & Co. after the firm won the lead book-running role on the state's $10 billion pension bond sale in 2003. Kjellander denied using his clout with Rove and a Rove representative, in published reports, denied he was ever lobbied to replace Fitzgerald in Chicago.
Federal authorities have not charged Blagojevich with any wrongdoing, but he is believed to be the individual identified in court filings as Public Official A. The governor has denied he is that unnamed official and his office has repeatedly said he does not engage in pay-to-play.
Ata entered into a plea agreement last week with federal authorities pleading guilty to a tax violation charge and lying to a federal official. He had been indicted last year on a charge of aiding and abetting one of Rezko's alleged corrupt business schemes.