February 14, 2009
BY NATASHA KORECKI AND DAVE MCKINNEY
Chicago Sun-Times Staff Reporters
State lawmakers are calling for a criminal investigation into whether U.S. Sen. Roland Burris committed perjury before a state impeachment panel, in the wake of a Sun-Times exclusive story published online today.
The development comes after the Chicago Democrat failed to initially disclose under oath to a House panel that he was hit up for campaign cash by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's brother.
State Rep. James Durkin (R-Western Springs) said Saturday that the Sangamon County state prosecutor‚s office will be asked to review Burris‚ Jan. 8 sworn testimony before the House panel to determine whether Burris (D-Ill.) perjured himself.
"I don't trust anything that comes out of Roland Burris‚ mouth or from his pen," Durkin said.
"We had a major league situation facing us. This is a United States senate seat that came under the most clouded of circumstances," Durkin said. "This is supposed to be about the year of reform this is about ethics and about transparency."
Durkin questioned why he found out about the additional testimony Friday night from the Sun-Times.
"Why were we kept out of the loop? Why were we kept out of the latest filing of Roland Burris?"
Word that Burris' account of his appointment has changed yet again came as a surprise to some of his colleagues in the Senate, who were not aware of the affidavit's filing until learning of it from press accounts. It was unclear what response might be triggered by Burris' revisions.
An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who initially sought to block Burris from being seated, said the Senate leader intended to take a closer look at Burris' new affidavit. But Reid's office declined to say whether the new revelations would reopen the question of whether Burris should be Illinois' junior senator.
"Senator Reid is reviewing the affidavit," Reid spokesman Jim Manley told the Sun-Times Saturday.
After Reid's hand was essentially forced by Burris and African-American supporters in Congress, Burris was formally seated in mid-January, leaving the Senate few options in responding to the matter. If criminal charges were ever to surface against Burris, the Senate Ethics Committee could probe his conduct and recommend censure, but outright removal from the Senate would require a two-thirds vote.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who also had reservations about Burris' appointment, intends to more closely examine Burris' evolving storyline before determining a response, a spokesman said. The No. 2 Senate Democrat left for a trip to Greece, Turkey and Cyprus today and won't return until Friday, his office said.
"He wants to look at the affidavit and review the testimony," Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker said.
The Sun-Times investigation found that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's brother solicited Burris for up to $10,000 in campaign cash before Blagojevich named Burris to the coveted post -- something Burris initially failed to disclose under oath before an Illinois House impeachment panel.
The affidavit is dated Feb. 5 -- three weeks after Burris was sworn in to replace President Obama in the Senate.
Burris -- who did not give money to the Blagojevich campaign fund in response to the previously undisclosed solicitation -- provided a copy of the sworn statement to the Chicago Sun-Times Friday in response to questions about his contacts with the Blagojevich camp about fund-raising.
Burris acknowledged having three conversations with Robert Blagojevich, who headed the Friends of Blagojevich campaign fund. At least one of those took place at a campaign office where phones were being recorded by the FBI, according to sources.
Burris‚ statement offers the third version of events he has given about his discussions concerning the Senate seat, to which Blagojevich appointed him in late December, after Blagojevich was hit with federal corruption charges that included an allegation he tried to sell the Senate appointment.
Burris said he sent the new statement to House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago) after he read the transcript of his testimony before the impeachment committee she headed and realized it was incomplete. "There were several facts that I was not given the opportunity to make during my testimony," Burris said. "I voluntarily submitted an affidavit so everything was transparent."
In October and again in November, Burris spoke with Robert Blagojevich, who initially asked him to host a fund-raiser. Burris said he'd get back to him after the election, sources with knowledge of the conversations said. The two later talked again, and Burris again was asked for campaign cash.
Burris said he refused to contribute and "made it unequivocally clear ... that it would be inappropriate and pose a major conflict because I was interested in the Senate vacancy."
A source with knowledge of the exchange said there was some discussion about Burris possibly getting others to give or raise money on his behalf. Not so, according to Burris: "I did not donate or help raise a single dollar for the governor from those conversations and would never consider making a donation through a third party."
In all, Burris expressed interest in the Senate seat to five people in Blagojevich's camp, documents obtained by the Sun-Times show. He disclosed just one of those contacts when asked Jan. 8 by state Rep. James Durkin (R-Western Springs) during the impeachment hearings to name any contact he had with Blagojevich's people about the seat.
"I'm very surprised he didn't make these disclosures," Durkin said. "I don't know if Mr. Burris was purposely being evasive during the committee or had selected memory issues."
In a sworn statement filed with the House panel Jan. 5, before he testified, Burris said he had no contact with Blagojevich's camp about the Senate seat aside from his appointment in late December. In testimony before the committee, he added that he spoke with Lon Monk, Blagojevich's former chief of staff. In his new affidavit, Burris confirms he also spoke of his interest in the Senate appointment with Blagojevich insiders John Harris, Doug Scofield and John Wyma.
The discussions with Robert Blagojevich about money came after Burris spoke with those people. Burris had told the House committee he was unaware of any quid pro quo dangled by Blagojevich's camp.
Robert Blagojevich's lawyer said today that his client spoke with Burris about a fund-raiser but that the governor's brother didn't know of Burris' political aspirations.
"He didn't know he was in the running for the U.S. Senate seat," Michael Ettinger said.
The former governor's publicist issued a statment today about the Sun-Times story regarding Burris.
"There's absolutely nothing inappropriate that took place between Gov. Blagojevich and Sen. Burris in connection to the governor's appointment of Mr. Burris to the U.S. Senate," the statment said.
"The governor acted ethically and honestly and believes Sen. Burris did too."
Senate Minority Leader Christine Radogno (R-Lemont) said Burris' new statement regarding his contact with Blagojevich's emissaries represents a "fatal wound" to a potential 2010 Burris re-election bid. His new account contains "extraordinary detail" Burris should have disclosed to the impeachment panel when he testified and to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) before being seated, Radogno said.
"If it turns out this was some sort of attempt to avoid this coming out as part of the appointment process, then he doesn't deserve to be senator," Radogno said. "I think the whole thing stinks to high heaven."
Currie acknowledged receiving Burris' letter but said she was unfamiliar with its contents.
After being read Burris' account of his dealings with Robert Blagojevich, Currie said: "Very odd. I don't know there is anything actionable here, but I would like to check the record."