SPRINGFIELD, ILL. — Federal prosecutors have asked an Illinois House impeachment committee not to delve into the criminal charges against Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, a request that could hasten a decision on whether to boot the governor from office.
In a letter released Tuesday, U.S. Atty. Patrick J. Fitzgerald warned the committee that interviewing witnesses and discussing documents related to the charges against Blagojevich could undermine his criminal investigation. He declined to give the committee documents and other information about his inquiry, but he left open the possibility of giving the panel copies of Blagojevich conversations captured on federal wiretaps.
"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.
Panel members had promised to abide by prosecutors' recommendations about what should be off-limits, so Fitzgerald's request means the panel won't conduct its own investigation of possible criminal activity. They have said that if they can't pursue the criminal charges, then their fact-gathering work is largely done.
State Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie, the committee chairwoman, said a decision on whether to recommend an impeachment vote by the full House 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.
But it could still weigh the criminal charges against the governor, even if it doesn't conduct its own review. Members say they will examine evidence outlined in the federal complaint against Blagojevich, including recordings of conversations in which he allegedly discussed how to benefit from appointing a new U.S. senator.
Blagojevich lawyer 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," 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.