Federal prosecutors want Illinois House impeachment committee to leave the criminal charges against Gov. Rod Blagojevich to them, which could mean the governor is out a job sooner rather than later. In a letter released Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald warned the committee that interviewing witnesses and discussing documents related to the charges against Blagojevich could "significantly compromise" his criminal investigation.
Members of the committee promised to abide by any direction from prosecutors on what should be off limits, so Fitzgerald's request means the panel won't conduct its own investigation of possible criminal activity.
That could lead to a quick decision from the committee on whether to recommend an impeachment vote by the full House. The chairwoman, Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, said the recommendation could come the week of Jan. 5.
"We're not prepared to drag our feet," Currie said at a news conference Monday.
The committee has been taking testimony on other possible grounds for impeachment -- that Blagojevich defied legislative orders, spent money without authorization, defied rules for issuing leases and contracts and gave jobs and board memberships to campaign donors.
Even if the committee doesn't conduct its own review of the criminal charges, it could still consider them when deciding whether to recommend impeachment.
Members say they'll look at evidence outlined in the federal complaint against Blagojevich, including recordings of conversations in which he discussed how to benefit from appointing
a new U.S. senator.
Blagojevich attorney Ed Genson has argued it's improper for the committee to consider the charges or the excerpts from wiretaps. And he says the evidence presented to the committee does not justify removing the governor.
"I don't think the evidence in this case should call for impeachment," attorney Ed Genson said after Monday's hearing. "There are no facts here. All we have are inferences."
Genson did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Blagojevich was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges, triggering an avalanche of demands for his resignation. Blagojevich maintains he is innocent and will stay in office to fight the accusations.
The committee is supposed to recommend whether the full House should consider impeaching Blagojevich. If the House voted to impeach, the state Senate would then hold a trial to decide if Blagojevich is removed from office.
The committee had asked Fitzgerald for guidance on what it could review without jeopardizing his criminal investigation.
Fitzgerald responded by asking the committee not to interview a long list of people and declining to give the committee documents and other information about his probe.
"Any inquiry into these topics, as well as the taking of testimony from present and former members of the governor's staff, could significantly compromise the ongoing criminal investigation," Fitzgerald wrote.
He did leave open the possibility of giving the committee copies of the Blagojevich conversations captured by federal wiretaps.
"I'm anxiously awaiting his final position on that," said Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, the top Republican on the panel.
Committee members have said that if they can't pursue the criminal charges, then their fact-gathering work is largely done. The panel will meet again next week so Blagojevich's lawyer can respond to earlier witnesses.