Sen. Roland Burris acknowledged Monday night that while lobbying for the appointment to serve out President Obama's unexpired term as senator from Illinois, he agreed to raise money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
The senator, sworn in just over a month ago, is now the target of a perjury investigation launched Tuesday by the Sangamon County, Ill., state's attorney, amid growing calls for Burris to resign. The probe will look into whether Burris committed perjury last month, when he told legislators investigating Blagojevich that he'd had no pay-to-play discussions with the governor about Obama's seat.
In a statement to reporters in Peoria on Tuesday, Burris said he welcomes "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." Madigan is among those who, given recent revelations, have called for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Burris' appointment by Blagojevich.
Burris said that he had called the Sangamon County state's attorney to express willingness to cooperate with his investigation, and he asserted that "there were never any inappropriate conversations between me and anyone else."
The revelations come as Burris stumbled through a "listening tour" back home this week, and his credibility has taken a daily nosedive.
A Chicago Sun-Times story over the weekend reported that Burris had filed an affidavit "amending" his testimony before the legislative committee. The affidavit detailed three conversations Burris had with Blagojevich's representatives that he had failed to disclose to the legislators.
According to a Chicago Tribune report, in comments to reporters Monday night after a dinner in Peoria, Burris himself detailed conversations he had with the governor's brother about raising money, and unfruitful conversations he had with other Democrats about potentially holding a fundraiser for the governor. But Burris insisted he ultimately resisted the brother's invitation to raise money for the governor because he wanted to be considered for the Senate opening.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin consented to seat Burris only after he testified to an Illinois legislative committee in January that he had had very limited contact with Burris' office.
During his Jan. 8 testimony before an Illinois House impeachment panel, Burris said that he had spoken with friends about his interest in the Senate seat and last fall told Lon Monk, former chief of staff to Blagojevich, of his interest in the seat. When asked if he were "directly or indirectly aware of a quid pro quo with the governor" for the appointment, Burris replied: "No, sir."
Reid and Durbin had previously vowed to block any Blagojevich appointment, saying it would be tainted by the pay-to-play scandal. But they about-faced after Burris' testimony — and under pressure from African-American leaders and legal scholars who asserted that they had little grounds on which to deny Burris entry to the chamber.
Burris, the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois, became the only African-American member of the Senate.
Blagojevich, who faces federal charges that he tried to sell Obama's seat, has since been impeached, convicted and removed from office by Illinois legislators.
In a statement Tuesday, Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, said, "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."
Illinois Rep. Jack Franks, who has called for Burris to resign, said that the Senate leadership may be considering referring the Burris matter to the Senate's Select Committee on Ethics, which investigates alleged misconduct by members.
Calls For Burris To Step Down
Illinois Rep. Michael Smith is one of an increasing number of Democrats who have called for a full investigation into whether Burris lied under oath. "This raises some serious questions that need to be answered fully," he said.
It also scrambles the race for 2010, when Burris' term expires. State Republicans say they see great opportunity in the latest Blago-related taint, even in a heavily Democratic state.
And Democrats are predicting that whatever plans Burris may have had of seeking a full term are now kaput, as short lists of hopefuls are being compiled.
"He's obviously not going to able to run again," Franks said. "He shouldn't have taken the appointment and he was complicit with Blagojevich. Let's just put this whole sordid episode behind us."
So, what are the chances that Burris could face a perjury charge in Illinois?
Patrick Collins, who was named by new Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn to head the state's ethics commission, said the situation deserves to be investigated, but perjury is difficult to prove.
"Is this a slam-dunk perjury case? No," said Collins, a former federal prosecutor now a partner with the law firm Perkins Coie.
"I've indicted and tried perjury cases and they're difficult to make, especially in the midst of a political maelstrom like this," he said. "You have to look at the facts and circumstances, and there has to be proof of mental state — an intention to misstate, rather than an honest mistake."
Burris has characterized the missing parts of his testimony as issues of memory, rather than intent.
Collins cautioned against a rush to judgment and said that Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt would be well-advised to take it slow. Review Burris' testimony, interview Burris and see if federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who heads the investigation against Blagojevich, has any information relative to the perjury inquiry, Collins said.
What many in Illinois are asking: What prompted Burris to revise his testimony, and then, over the past several days, spill out piecemeal information about the much more intricate dealings he had with the former governor in the lead-up to the Senate appointment?
For Republicans, any opportunity to prolong the Blagojevich scandal is a good opportunity, even though many Democrats had wanted to see Burris decline a run in 2010 in favor of a stronger candidate.
"We have an opportunity we didn't have several weeks ago," said Demetra DeMonte, a national GOP committee woman from Pekin, Ill. "Obviously, there's a lot of fodder, and the whole scenario is not over yet."
Not by a long shot.