It's enough to make Frank Costanza proud. A special committee of House lawmakers has just spent several days "airing grievances" with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, not far from the tall, blue aluminum pole standing in the Capitol rotunda -- both part of the fictional Festivus holiday the character created on the popular 'Seinfeld' sitcom a decade ago.
It's enough to make Frank Costanza proud.
A special committee of House lawmakers has just spent several days "airing grievances" with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, not far from the tall, blue aluminum pole standing in the Capitol rotunda -- both part of the fictional Festivus holiday the character created on the popular 'Seinfeld' sitcom a decade ago.
Lawmakers are looking into whether Blagojevich should be impeached after his arrest two weeks ago on federal corruption allegations. When they return to work Monday, committee members will hear the case from Blagojevich's lawyer and then could make a recommendation to the full House the following week.
The smoking gun is the criminal complaint, the 76-page report where prosecutors allege all sorts of wrongdoing by Blagojevich, who was caught on wiretaps and bugs.
But so far, the House committee's probe has largely focused on longstanding complaints of abuse of power by the governor. The hearings mostly have served as a new public venue for renewed legislative gripes.
Legislators defend that as a key part of sorting out whether there's enough evidence to go ahead with an unprecedented impeachment of a sitting Illinois governor.
"They're not new (complaints), but they do show perhaps a pattern of arrogance or a pattern of misuse, abuse of power in which the governor doesn't understand how far he may and how far he may not go in running state government on his own terms," said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat serving as the committee's chairwoman.
The committee sees itself as the grand jury, deciding if there's probable cause to support impeachment. It's not conducting a trial with courtroom standards. And the state Constitution provides only a broad framework for how impeachment should be handled.
Once the committee finishes its work, the full House will consider whether to impeach Blagojevich. If it votes to do so, the Senate would follow with a trial and verdict.
That gives legislators broad discretion to decide what counts for impeachment. They see both the criminal complaint and examples where Blagojevich has butted heads with legislators as part of that mix.
"Folks out there don't much care, but I think lawmakers do. And I think that abuse of power, misuse of power is an important issue in an impeachment proceeding," Currie said.
Blagojevich's lawyer, Ed Genson, insists there isn't enough evidence to support impeachment. He says the criminal complaint is riddled with problems, and other allegations of abuse of power by Blagojevich don't have a solid base.
"Illinois is not going to help its reputation simply by giving in to the lynch mob so to speak," Genson told reporters after the latest committee hearing last week. "There are no facts here. All we have are inferences. I hope the rush to judgment is going to slow down a little."
Are committee members convinced impeachment should move forward? They aren't saying yet.
They had hoped to be able to delve more deeply into Blagojevich's criminal allegations, but U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said that could crimp his investigation.
They don't see going far in other directions - such as questions about the administration's hiring practices, or Blagojevich's efforts to sell off state assets - at this point.
"We have a lot of things to chew on right now, so I'm not concerned if nothing else is placed into the record," said Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, the Republican leader on the committee. "I think we do have enough to at least begin our deliberations in whatever way we can."
Here is a look at some of the grievances lawmakers have covered in the hearings:
Lawmakers spent much of one day grilling top officials at the state Department of Healthcare and Family Services about the agency's insistence on expanding a health care insurance program, despite legislative opposition. The dispute over the FamilyCare expansion landed the issue in court a year ago, where it's still pending.
At its core is whether Blagojevich can go ahead with policy moves even if legislators step in to say "no."
The obscure legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules rejected the governor's effort to expand FamilyCare to cover thousands more families, after the full legislature also opposed it. The administration now says JCAR's authority is only advisory.
"We believe we had the authority and the funding," DHFS Director Barry Maram told the committee. "I'm not here to argue with you, I'm here to give you facts."
Legislators say stripping their authority to review such substantive policy moves dilutes the separation of powers set out in the state Constitution.
"All God's children are for health care. We would like you to follow the law," Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, told Maram.
Auditor General William Holland went over dozens of problems his auditors found throughout state agencies under Blagojevich's control.
They ranged from more minor disputes to major concerns, including a prescription drug program that has never received federal approval and a plan to import flu vaccines that ultimately resulted in them being destroyed without ever reaching Illinois.
Holland said Blagojevich officials apparently knew the vaccines wouldn't be allowed into the country but pursued the idea anyway.
"It was lousy government at its best, and very costly," Holland told lawmakers.
He also acknowledged his auditors have started to leave it up to the agencies to fix repeated problems after running into many roadblocks in cooperation.
"Over the last couple of years, it has been a challenge to do the audit work that you've asked me to do," Holland said.
Blagojevich's penchant for raising buckets of campaign cash, sometimes from people with job or contract connections, drew lawmakers' ire again.
Officials with the legislature's Procurement Policy Board questioned the link between state leases given to prominent Blagojevich donors. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform raised numerous instances of the appearance of "pay-to-play" - noting connections between donors who get state jobs, contracts or board appointments.
Canary said the appearance of corruption in such cases is indisputable.
"Over the past six years, it has eaten away at the trust of Illinois citizens in their governor and eviscerated his ability to govern," Canary said.
Some lawmakers agreed what Canary laid out is disturbing.
"It makes you concerned when you see those patterns. The result of those patterns is people hurting and people suffering and the state hurting and the state suffering," said Rep. John Bradley, D-Marion.
Genson responded that without factual proof that donors received benefits because of donations, the accusations meant little.
"You didn't do any coordination. You didn't coordinate any of these contributions with a specific office or a specific contract," Genson said to Canary.
The hearings also briefly covered problems reporters, interest groups and even legislators have had in getting public information from the Blagojevich administration, from federal subpoenas to hiring lists.
Don Craven, a Springfield lawyer who handles state Freedom of Information Act issues for reporters and others, detailed a number of cases where reasons for denials of information by the administration were "bizarre."
"The actions of this administration are evidence of more than simple disregard for the law," Craven said, noting he thought it signaled "contempt for the law."
Ryan Keith can be reached at (217) 788-1518 or firstname.lastname@example.org.