Burris Denies New Allegations Of Pay-To-Play
DAVID GREENE, host:
Illinois Democratic Senator Roland Burris is on the defensive again. Burris is heard on FBI wiretaps, promising to contribute to the campaign of then Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, while also asking that he be considered for the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. But Burris insists he did nothing wrong in his dealings with the governor, who was later impeached and now faces a criminal investigation. NPR's David Schaper reports.
Senator ROLAND BURRIS (Democrat, Illinois): Burris speaking.
Mr. ROBERT BLAGOJEVICH (Brother of former Governor Rod Blagojevich): Hello, Roland. This is Rob Blagojevich again. How are you?
Senator BURRIS: I'm doing fine. I'm doing fine.
(Soundbite of laughter)
What's going on? I'm just discussing…
DAVID SCHAPER: That's how a phone conversation begins between Burris and then Governor Blagojevich's brother Robert back on November 13, more than a month before Burris was appointed to the Senate and three weeks before Blagojevich's arrest for allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. From the outset, Robert Blagojevich, chair of his brother's campaign fund, makes clear he is calling to raise money, while Burris makes this clear…
Senator BURRIS: Well, I'm very much interested in trying to replace Obama. OK?
SCHAPER: And Burris appears to recognize that linking the two desires could pose a problem.
Senator BURRIS: And so if I put on a fundraiser now, it would have so many negative connotations that Burris is trying to buy an appointment from the governor for the Senate seat.
SCHAPER: Back in January, Burris had told an Illinois House investigative committee he couldn't even recall if he had talked with Robert Blagojevich about his interest in the Senate seat. A month later, Burris admitted they had talked. And, he told reporters they discussed fundraising, too.
Senator BURRIS: What did I tell his brother? I'm interested in the Senate seat. I cannot contribute any money to you, nor can I raise any money to you. I mean, I had the foresight to tell his brother that because I thought it would be a conflict of interest.
SCHAPER: Now, here's what FBI wiretaps recorded Burris actually telling Robert Blagojevich.
Senator BURRIS: I know I can give him a check myself. And my law partner, we were going to try to do something at the law firm. I might be able to do this in the name of Tim Wright.
SCHAPER: Wright is Burris's lawyer, and he said Wednesday, he told Burris he would not host a fundraiser for Blagojevich. Burris told reporters yesterday he wasn't really going to raise any money for Blagojevich but was just trying to placate the Blagojevichs, to keep his name in consideration for the seat.
But in the wiretapped call, Burris tells Robert Blagojevich he is trying to figure out a way to raise some money where it won't create a conflict. And he promises he will personally do something for Blagojevich before ending the call this way…
Senator BURRIS: Tell Rod to keep me in mind for that seat, would you?
Mr. BLAGOJEVICH: I'll let him know.
Senator BURRIS: Ok.
Mr. BLAGOJEVICH: All right, Roland.
Senator BURRIS: All right. Bye-bye.
SCHAPER: Critics say the wire tapped conversation contradicts this testimony by Burris back in January before the Illinois House Impeachment Committee.
State Representative JIM DURKIN (Republican, 82nd District): At any time were you directly or indirectly aware of a quid pro quo with the governor for the appointment of this vacant Senate seat?
Senator BURRIS: No, sir.
SCHAPER: Burris now contends that because he never sent the check he promised the tape proves he did not pay to play. And he says he never told the legislative committee about the fundraising because lawmakers never asked.
Senator BURRIS: There was no attempt to do any wheeling and dealing, to not disclose. I mean, you know, that did not take place. Thank you all very much.
SCHAPER: But the ever-changing Burris story is not sitting well with those who allowed him to be seated in the Senate, including fellow Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): We asked him to do a complete and accurate honest disclosure about what happened, under oath, before he was sworn into the Senate. It appears now that he did not make that complete disclosure in Springfield.
SCHAPER: The recording of the FBI wiretap is being released to the Senate Ethics committee, which is investigating Burris. It could recommend he be censured or even expelled from the Senate whenever the investigation is complete.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
(Soundbite of music)
GREENE: This is NPR News.