Federal prosecutors fired back Thursday at defense claims that U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald's comments at a news conference were so strongly worded that he should be taken off the fraud case against Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
Fitzgerald said in announcing charges against Blagojevich and former chief of staff John Harris on Dec. 9 the two men had been on "a political corruption crime spree" and their actions would make "Lincoln roll over in his grave."
Defense attorneys have asked Chief Judge James F. Holderman of the U.S. District Court to take Fitzgerald off the case, saying the comments were so far over the line that they were guaranteed to generate prejudicial publicity before the trial.
Fitzgerald's office said in court papers filed Thursday his comments were not improper and "served as a means of energizing and mobilizing the community to take action to thwart or deter public corruption."
The governor "seeks unprecedented relief that would grant Blagojevich a power to frustrate the investigation well beyond that which has ever been granted by a court to any other investigative target on publicity grounds," prosecutors said.
Blagojevich, 52, is accused of plotting to sell or trade the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama's election. He is accused of using the financial powers of the governor's office to squeeze potential contributors for campaign money and pressuring the Chicago Tribune to fire editorial writers urging his impeachment. He was impeached last week by the Illinois House and faces a Senate trial that could lead to his removal.
"Contrary to the defendant's contentions, the government has not engaged in misconduct in this case, much less misconduct so grave as to warrant the extraordinary interference with the grand jury process that the defendant seeks," said federal prosecutors, who are still moving toward obtaining an indictment.
Brushing aside claims that they shouldn't have revealed Blagojevich's private conversations captured on wiretaps, prosecutors said that bringing charges against a sitting governor was a serious step and therefore the public was entitled to know why the government decided to take it.
"Given the defendant's official position and the serious nature of the allegations, there was little likelihood that the comments would materially affect the public's perception or increase the publicity beyond that generated by the charges, allegations and wiretap evidence themselves," the prosecutors said.
Holderman has given defense attorneys until Jan. 29 to reply.