By Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 9, 2009
CHICAGO, Jan. 8 -- Roland W. Burris, seeking to complete his sudden rise from political obscurity to the U.S. Senate, told Illinois lawmakers Thursday that he offered no favors to embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) in return for his Senate appointment.
Shortly before a special state House committee voted unanimously to seek Blagojevich's impeachment, accusing him of abusing his power, Burris said under questioning by the panel that "there was nothing legal, personal or political exchanged for my appointment to this seat."
Burris, a contributor to and fundraiser for the governor, said he told a former Blagojevich aide in July that he would be interested in the seat, which was held by Barack Obama until shortly after he won he presidency.
Although he criticized Blagojevich's conduct after the FBI arrested the governor Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges, Burris said he welcomed the appointment because he believes he deserves the seat and "Illinois should not be short of a senator."
Shortly after Burris finished his testimony, the 21 committee members delivered a string of scathing rebukes to Blagojevich as they voted to recommend his impeachment and removal from office.
A fellow Democrat on the committee said the governor's refusal to resign has made Illinois "the laughingstock of the country." Another Democrat said Blagojevich has driven the state "to the edge of the abyss."
The vote demonstrated "that nobody is above the law and anybody will be held accountable for their actions," said state Rep. William Black (R), a panel member, who called Thursday a good day for Illinois.
The committee's 59-page report, drawing heavily on an FBI affidavit that supported the governor's arrest, charged Blagojevich with violating the public trust by skirting the legislature in his official duties and trying to profit from his decisions as governor.
"The citizens of this state must have confidence that their governor will faithfully serve the people and put their interests before his own," the committee wrote. "It is with profound regret that the committee finds that our current governor has not done so."
The full House appears likely to impeach Blagojevich, setting the stage for a trial in the state Senate, where a two-thirds vote would be required to oust him. Blagojevich, 52, has vowed to fight "until I take my last breath."
The testimony from Burris, appointed by Blagojevich despite widespread calls for the governor to leave the choice to his successor, was a condition for his joining the Senate, set by the Democratic leadership in Washington. Initially adamant that no Blagojevich choice would be seated, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats backed down this week.
In response to lawmakers' questions, Burris said his firm has contributed $11,200 to Blagojevich in the past eight years. He contributed several thousand dollars from his own pocket and held a fundraiser for the governor's 2006 reelection.
Burris, 71, a Democratic lawyer and lobbyist who has lost three races for governor and one for Senate, was asked about his own campaign debts. He said Chicago television executive Joseph Stroud loaned him $1.2 million for a 2002 governor's race and neither asked for the money back nor was repaid.
"I have no way of repaying the money," Burris testified.
As for Obama's seat, Burris said that after July he had no conversations with anyone close to Blagojevich -- who is accused of trying to sell the appointment -- until one of the governor's lawyers called him on Dec. 26. When Blagojevich offered him the job on Dec. 28, Burris said, the conversation was brief.
Impeachment committee members said they discovered a pattern of abuse of power as they studied the 76-page FBI affidavit, a series of plea agreements involving Blagojevich associates and an array of the governor's executive decisions.
The lawmakers, who described the governor's actions as "shocking," said they were unpersuaded by defense attorney Ed Genson's assertions that secretly taped conversations in which the governor appears to seek profit from the Senate appointment were "just people jabbering."
"These intercepted conversations reveal far more than mere idle 'talk,' " the committee wrote. "The governor, on many occasions, put his 'words' into action. He directed many individuals to conduct inquiries and negotiations with interested parties."
Whether or not the subordinates succeeded, the lawmakers wrote, "does not change the fact that the governor asked them to negotiate on his behalf." The committee cited examples in which they said Blagojevich appeared to know he was breaking the law.
Blagojevich ignored state law and the legislature numerous times, the committee alleged, when expanding an expensive health-care program and when ordering flu vaccine in quantities not approved by the federal government. The report also charges that Blagojevich's office misspent money.
"There are many in my district who think he's a saint because of the health-care programs and free rides for seniors," state Rep. Connie Howard (D) said as the committee voted. "I support those programs too, but the ends do not justify the means."
Lydersen reported from Springfield, Ill.