Senate Ethics may investigate Burris
By MANU RAJU | 2/17/09 5:59 PM EST Updated: 2/17/09 8:40 PM EST
Embattled Sen. Roland W. Burris' legal and political problems deepened Tuesday as Democrats in Washington and Illinois signaled that they would support an investigation into whether the senator lied under oath about his appointment to the Illinois Senate seat.
Illinois Democrats are now backing GOP calls for a perjury investigation, while the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Ethics Committee suggested that the panel would open a preliminary inquiry, which could ultimately lead to Burris’ expulsion from the full Senate.
"Whenever allegations of improper conduct are brought to the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee, we open a preliminary inquiry," said Natalie Ravitz, spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the panel.
After saying he never raised funds for Blagojevich, Burris admitted to reporters Monday night that he did in fact try to raise funds after a solicitation request was made by the former governor's brother, Rob. And while Burris contends he failed to disclose the extent of his contacts with Blagojevich because he simply wasn’t asked about them, a review of transcripts shows Burris repeatedly dodged questions when the issue was raised by a second state legislator when he testified under oath.
On Tuesday, Burris was in full damage control mode, saying he did nothing wrong and is open to a state and federal inquiry into his statements about the appointment.
"I have made an effort to be as transparent as I can, and I'm willing to take a further step as I have nothing to hide," Burris said to reporters assembled in Peoria on Tuesday. "I welcome the opportunity to go before any and all investigative bodies, including those referred by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and the Senate Ethics Committee to answer any questions they have."
Meanwhile, Democrats in Springfield have become increasingly critical of Burris, and Illinois Republicans have called for a perjury investigation and demanded his resignation. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, submitted documents Tuesday to a state's attorney in Sangamon County to determine whether a perjury inquiry should be launched. Critics say Burris intentionally suppressed the contacts — and potentially lied under oath — in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety so he could be seated in the Senate.
And Democrat Mike Quigley, a candidate for White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's former congressional seat, is calling on Burris to resign.
"Roland Burris’ failure to be honest and upfront with the people of Illinois should disqualify him from service in the United States Senate," Quigley said in a Tuesday evening statement. "He should resign, immediately. The Illinois legislature should work with Governor Quinn to pass legislation immediately setting up a special election empowering the people of Illinois to have a voice in this matter and allowing us all to finally turn the page on this sad chapter in Illinois’ politics.”
For Democrats nationwide, Burris was an unwelcome distraction on the same day President Obama signed into law the $787 billion economic stimulus measure, and many believe Burris has squandered the goodwill with party leaders who reluctantly agreed to seat him last month. The revelations could put new pressure on Burris to announce he's not running in the 2010 Senate election, or add impetus on the Senate to weigh in on the matter rather than seeing it play out in Illinois.
Burris has largely been isolated in his fight to clear his name, as Democratic leaders have yet to offer any public backing despite the senator’s assurances.
Reid, speaking to reporters in Nevada, said it was an open question on whether Burris was being honest with state legislators.
"He went before the state Legislature and he obviously convinced them, but we'll have to see… I hope he didn't try to avoid or mislead anyone but that's what the investigation (in Springfield) is all about," Reid said, according to press reports.
And a top aide said that Reid would support a Senate inquiry as well.
“Sen. Reid supports Sen. Burris’ decision to cooperate with all appropriate officials who may review this matter, including state agencies and the Senate Ethics Committee,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
The Ethics Committee in the past has declined to review matters if they occurred before a senator was sworn into office, but it could decide to review a matter if a sitting senator’s conduct reflects poorly on the institution, several ethics law experts say.
But what may complicate a separate probe by the ethics panel is the ongoing federal investigation into Blagojevich — and a possible state probe into whether Burris lied. The committee in the past has often stayed away from investigating matters that may collide with ongoing criminal investigations.
“If the conduct at issue is caught up in that scope of that investigation, that’s another reason why the committee may defer action,” said Rob Walker, a former chief counsel and staff director to both the Senate and House ethics committees.
The problems for Burris began Saturday after he disclosed that he submitted a Feb. 5 affidavit to a state legislative committee. The new affidavit shows that Burris spoke with six Blagojevich associates, which contradicts both his previous affidavit to state legislators and his own testimony about his Senate appointment.
But Burris has maintained that his latest affidavit merely meant to clarify his previous statements, arguing it was entirely consistent with his Jan. 8 testimony before a state panel investigating whether to impeach the then-governor.
"But I just wish that the reporters would look into this, look at the action that is taken and look at the steps in the process," Burris told reporters in Illinois Monday night, according to a transcript on the Chicago Tribune's website. "I mean, I have not done anything wrong."
But for the first time Monday night, Burris acknowledging trying — and failing — to raise money for the governor.
“So when the [governor's] brother called me back, I said, 'Well, look Rob ... I can't raise any money from my friends.' I said, 'Maybe my partner and I, you can talk this over and see, could we go to some other people that we might be able to talk to that would help us out if we give — because we give a fundraiser in the law office, nobody going to show up. We'll probably have $1,000 for you' or something to that effect," Burris said.
In a contentious news conference Sunday, Burris told reporters that had state Rep. Jim Durkin followed up with questions during January testimony about the extent of his contacts with Blagojevich's associates, he would have fully explained them to the committee.
But Burris failed to mention to reporters that he did not disclose five of six contacts during questioning by state Rep. Jil Tracy, who pressed Burris repeatedly during the Jan. 8 hearing about which Blagojevich associates he spoke with about the appointment.
According to a transcript of the proceedings, Tracy asked Burris to explain his outreach to Blagojevich associates, and Burris said he would contact the governor's friends "after the election." He said he had let his desire to be seated known through a press conference held in December 2008.
Tracy asked Burris if Lon Monk — a former top Blagojevich aide and the only contact Burris mentioned — was the "extent" of his contacts.
Burris dodged the question and said that he mentioned his interest in the Senate seat to Monk in passing. "And that was the extent of it," Burris testified.
"So you don't recall that there was anybody else besides Lon Monk that you expressed that interest to at that point?" the legislator asked.
Burris replied: "No, I can't recall."
But Burris on Sunday said he never had a chance to offer up other names, saying that Durkin had taken his line of questioning in another direction.
In his questioning, Durkin asked Burris if he spoke with several people close to Blagojevich, including five of whom Burris admitted to speaking to in his Feb. 5 affidavit.
After conferring with his lawyer at the hearing, Burris hedged, "I talked to some friends about my desire to be appointed, yes."
Durkin followed: "I guess the point I was trying to ask: Did you speak to anybody who was on the governor's staff prior to the governor's arrest or anybody, any of those individuals or anybody who is closely related to the governor?"
Burris said: "I recall having a meeting with Lon Monk about my partner and I trying to get continued business, and I did bring it up — it must have been in September or maybe it was in July of '08 that, you know, you're close to the governor, let him know that I am certainly interested in the seat."
Andy Barr contributed to this story.