Sen. Burris Denies Wrongdoing Over Senate Seat
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
After months of relative quiet, Roland Burris is back on the defensive today. The Illinois Democrat who now sits in President Obama's former Senate seat is trying to explain how he got his job.
Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): There was no attempt to do any wheeling and dealing to not disclose. I mean, you know, that did not take place.
BLOCK: Burris was appointed by former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich before the governor was ousted from office for, among other things, trying to sell the Senate seat. Now a phone conversation has been disclosed between Burris and the former governor's brother. It has revived questions about whether Senator Burris played a role in a pay to play scheme. NPR's Cheryl Corley joins us from Chicago. And Cheryl, we should explain that a federal judge allowed the release of the transcript of this call, and I gather now the tape. This is a call that was wiretapped by the FBI.
CHERYL CORLEY: Absolutely. What's new and what we're learning, from both this transcript and the phone call, are the details. It's a conversation that took place last November, between Roland Burris and Robert Blagojevich, the governor's brother - then governor's brother, while the Senate seat was still up for grabs, and before Rod Blagojevich, the former governor, was arrested.
And in this conversation, the two talk about the possibility of Roland Burris raising money for Blagojevich, and the conversation shows how concerned Roland Burris was about how that might look.
Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): I'm very much interested in trying to replace Obama, okay.
Mr. ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH (Former Governor, Democrat, Illinois): You and - let me just tell you, Roland, you and one million other people.
Sen. BURRIS: That's right, that's right.
Mr. BLAGOJEVICH: Of every race, color, creed and faith. It's amazing.
Sen. BURRIS: It is. And so if I put on a fundraiser now, and, you know, I think it would have - I mean, this is what I've been talking to Fred about, it has so many negative connotations, that Burris is try to buy an appointment from the governor for the Senate seat.
CORLEY: And he goes on to say he's just trying to figure out how to deal with that, because he figures that if it becomes somewhat public, that both he and the governor will get a lot of attention and be in more trouble. And he goes on to say, he might be able to give a check, perhaps, that he and his law partner were going to try to do something at their law firm, or perhaps he might be able to give money by doing something in the name of his own attorney.
BLOCK: Yeah, and throughout this call, he's clearly very concerned about how this all will look. He has maintained, Cheryl - Senator Burris has maintained that he never actually gave money to the governor during that period, or raised money for him. Is that true?
CORLEY: As far as we know, it really is, but I spoke earlier today with the incoming director of the Better Government Association here in Illinois, Andy Shaw - he's also a former political reporter. And he says it really doesn't matter that no money was raised, because pay to play is engaging in discussions about pay to play, whether or not you actually do pay.
And in the case of Rod Blagojevich, for example, and the alleged selling of the Obama Senate seat, there really weren't any transactions that occurred, but still the former governor is charged criminally because there were attempts. So Roland Burris, Mr. Shaw says, engaged in pay to play as well, even though he failed at it.
BLOCK: Hmm. Cheryl, put this conversation in context for us. There are a few different investigations going on, and how this fits in with what Roland Burris has said in testimony before, say, the Illinois legislature.
CORLEY: Well, when he appeared before the Illinois legislature, he said that he was not involved in any sort of pay to play at all, although he revised the testimony that he gave before the committee twice. He says by doing so, by giving those affidavits, though, he was being clear and forthcoming and honest.
BLOCK: And what are the ramifications of this for Senator Burris, do you think?
CORLEY: Well, there's an investigation going on in Springfield, the state capital, about whether he committed perjury. This of course is all tied to a Senate ethics committee investigation, a preliminary investigation of the Burris appointment, and they had asked for any record of the senator having conversations about the Senate job. So who knows? It might end up with a censure, or some other disciplinary action that the Senate might take.
BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Cheryl, thanks very much.
CORLEY: You're quite welcome.
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