Impeached Illinois governor goes on trial

CHICAGO, Jan 26 (Reuters) - Impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, defending himself in television interviews but not in person, went on trial in the Illinois Senate on Monday less than two months after his arrest for trying to sell the U.S. Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.

The chief justice of the Illinois Supreme Court gaveled the trial to order at the state capitol building in Springfield. The 37 Democrats and 22 Republicans serving in the Senate are likely to render a guilty verdict and toss him from office by week’s end.

“This is a solemn and serious business,” Chief Justice Thomas Fitzgerald told the senators, urging them to obey their oath to be fair.

The two-term Democratic governor, who has compared his predicament to that of an Old West lynching and cited the struggles of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, will not present a defense and predicted he will be convicted and ousted.

Blagojevich has denied doing anything wrong. He reiterated that from New York in a round of nationally broadcast television interviews on Monday aimed at trying to convince the public that the state legislature is in a rush to judgment out of political vengeance and a desire to raise taxes.

The Illinois House of Representatives impeached Blagojevich earlier this month citing 13 charges, ranging from trying to sell the Senate seat to angling to get critical editorial writers at the Chicago Tribune fired and trading official acts and appointments for campaign cash.

He was charged by federal prosecutors with trying to deal for Obama’s old Senate seat and other offenses, but has not been indicted. The bulk of the items on which he was impeached involved alleged abuse of power that put him at odds with the legislature for the past six years.

“You can conceivably bring in 15 angels and 20 saints, led by Mother Teresa, to come in and testify to my good character and my integrity and all the rest; it wouldn’t matter. There’s no chance whatsoever to have a fair hearing,” Blagojevich said in an interview aired on NBC’s “Today” show.

Later he defended himself on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and “The View,” and said he had considered appointing talk show host Oprah Winfrey to the seat Obama relinquished after he won the White House.

But he said he doubted Winfrey would have accepted and he didn’t want to embarrass her. Blagojevich later appointed Roland Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, to fill Obama’s seat.

Winfrey, in an interview on the “Gayle King Show” on Sirius XM radio said, “I’m pretty amused by the whole thing ... I think I could be senator too. I’m just not interested.”

If convicted and removed from office, Blagojevich would appear to have no viable options.

Andrew Leipold, a professor at the University of Illinois Law School, said he knew of no legal recourse and predicted the proceeding will not take very long with the governor not mounting a defense.

It would take a vote of 40 of the 59 senators to convict him.

“This is an impeachment trial, not a criminal case and the Senate gets to make the rules,” Leipold said. In deciding not to put up a defense Blagojevich said the rules prevented him from an unrestricted calling of witnesses.

Among other things, federal prosecutors have asked the Senate not to call witnesses involved in the criminal case which is still before a grand jury in Chicago. (Reporting by Michael Conlon and Andrew Stern; editing by David Wiessler)