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Blagojevich aides offer shrugs to impeachment inquiry
By John Patterson | Daily Herald Staff

Tammi Hoffman, chief of dtaff for the Dept. of Health Care and Family Services, left, and Barry Maram, Director of the Dept. Health Care and Family Services, right, testify during the Illinois House Impeachment Committee Hearing Thursday.

 

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Published: 12/19/2008 12:04 AM

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SPRINGFIELD - The state's top welfare officials repeatedly said Thursday they didn't know or couldn't recall who it was that decided to press forward with a taxpayer-financed health coverage expansion Gov. Rod Blagojevich wanted but lawmakers rejected.

"I don't know who initiated the initial initiation," said Barry Maram, director of the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Lawmakers are looking at the program as possible evidence of abuse of power by the governor.

Tamara Hoffman, Maram's chief of staff, similarly said she couldn't recall how the push to override lawmakers occurred but she would scan her notes, though she cautioned it might take a while to sort through the clutter.

"You should see my desk," Hoffman told lawmakers.

Such answers, or lack of them, riled lawmakers investigating the impeachment of Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

"It seems like you guys don't have a lot of information about who tells you to do what," said state Rep. Lou Lang, a Skokie Democrat.

At issue is the expansion of the Family Care coverage program that's funded by state and federal taxpayers as well as through premiums participants pay. It was part of a massive health care plan financed with a new business tax that lawmakers summarily rejected last year. When Blagojevich went ahead with part of the expansion, a legislative panel told him he couldn't.

But the governor ignored it and continued enrolling people anyway. Now lawmakers are considering whether to impeach him for abuse of power, among other potential grounds.

The impeachment investigation, approved 113-0 in the Illinois House, began Tuesday. Members adjourned early Thursday evening and are due back Monday.

Lawmakers also heard testimony regarding the Blagojevich administration withholding public information, ignoring federal law in trying to import foreign prescription drugs and flu shots, all the while costing taxpayers millions with little or no authority to do so.

The investigation of health care expansion and legality of administrative rules is quite dry and dull compared to the foul-mouthed wiretap excerpts of a governor allegedly caught trying to shakedown a children's hospital, the Tribune Co., a tollway contractor and anyone interested in filling President-elect Barack Obama's U.S. Senate seat.

But this area is one of several potential abuses of power that had lawmakers contemplating an impeachment investigation long before the governor's arrest last week. In fact, House Democrats drafted an impeachment memo this summer advising Democratic candidates on how to go about discussing the issue. It is those talking points - that the governor went around lawmakers, abused his authority and ignored numerous state laws and constitutional duties - that are now being explored in addition to the federal charges leading to the arrest.

On Thursday, the impeachment panel sent a letter to U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald regarding exactly who and what he's willing to make available given that he has yet to begin his federal case against the governor. Panel members said they will defer to Fitzgerald, honor his position and not interfere with the federal case.

The prosecutor's response will likely decide lawmakers' next step, as members have expressed their desire to call to testify many of the people and figures named in the federal documents. If they are not available, the impeachment case could be shortened dramatically.

Edward Genson, Blagojevich's attorney, again on Thursday criticized the process, saying the use of any wiretap information is "illegal." He has called the process a "witch hunt."

But the impeachment case is not a court case. It is largely a political venue and the state constitution gives sole authority to lawmakers. If they can muster 60 votes, House members can send an impeachment case on to the Senate for trial on just about any grounds they want.

Blagojevich's legal team tried to play to public sympathy Thursday. Attorney Sam Adams Jr. cast aside hours of testimony as mere bureaucratic violations and instead asked the two welfare agency officials, "how many brother and sister Illinois citizens' lives were saved" as a direct result of the governor's health care push.

Lawmakers stopped him in his tracks.

"We're not that kind of jury," said Chairwoman Barbara Flynn Currie, "I'm sorry to tell you."