By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
CHICAGO, Feb. 17 -- In the latest in a series of shifting accounts of his conduct, Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) told reporters that he tried to raise money for then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich at the same time he was asking Blagojevich to appoint him to the Senate.
Burris said he contacted "some people" about holding a fundraiser at the request of Blagojevich's brother, Robert, only to learn that no one was willing to help the governor. He said he later changed his mind, raised no money and contributed none.
The account to reporters in Peoria, Ill., was Burris's fifth version of his contacts with close associates of Blagojevich and the first time he acknowledged trying to raise money for the former governor, who was arrested and forced from office on corruption charges.
The revelation led Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt (R) and the Senate ethics committee to move Tuesday to open investigations into Burris's statements. Burris said he would answer "any and all questions."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) offered tepid support to Burris, who was appointed to the seat by Blagojevich on Dec. 28 over the objections of Reid and every Democrat in the Senate. Reid said he supported Burris's "decision to cooperate with all appropriate officials."
Burris, in the middle of a five-day listening tour in Illinois, has not been accused of wrongdoing in connection with Blagojevich, who is accused of trying to sell the Senate seat that once belonged to President Obama. He said he has done nothing wrong.
"I have not given any money. I have not even raised any money," Burris told reporters in Peoria on Monday night, according to a Chicago Tribune transcript.
Democrats and Republicans in Illinois contend that Burris repeatedly failed to disclose his contacts with Blagojevich's inner circle at a time when state and national politicians were asking whether the decision was free from scandal.
Gov. Patrick Quinn (D) has said Burris owes his constituents an explanation. Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan (D) said Tuesday that she urged Schmidt "to take a closer look at this in the interest of truth, integrity and transparency."
"The evidence suggests Senator Burris lied under oath," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility. If the ethics committee finds that he lied as the Senate was deciding whether to seat him, he should be expelled "for improper conduct that reflects on the Senate," Sloan said.
Congressional ethics specialist Stanley Brand said Senate rules would permit an investigation that could lead to censure or expulsion if lawmakers decide that Burris procured the office under false pretenses.
"Having seated him under the apprehension that he was clean in respect to his relationship to the governor, I can see them taking another look," Brand said.
Burris, who has said he spoke with Blagojevich only once, when the governor offered him the job on Dec. 28, has given an evolving series of accounts of his contacts with the former governor's inner circle.
In a sworn affidavit dated Jan. 5, Burris said that before late December, "there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Governor Blagojevich or any of his representatives" about the seat.
On Jan. 7, Reid said Burris seemed "candid and forthright." He noted that Burris would testify the next day to a state House impeachment committee and said the answers would be "very important."
Burris was asked under oath on Jan. 8 by state Rep. Jim Durkin (R) whether he had spoken about the Senate seat with anyone "closely related to the governor, including family members or lobbyists connected with him." Durkin named six individuals.
After conferring with his attorney, Burris said he had spoken with "some friends." Asked again, he named only Lon Monk, a former Blagojevich chief of staff.
That was the end of it until the Chicago Sun-Times revealed a new Burris affidavit on Saturday, signed and dated Feb. 4, that revealed conversations with five Blagojevich advisers, all of whom had been named in Durkin's question.
The affidavit disclosed three talks with Robert Blagojevich. Burris said he told the governor's brother that he could not contribute to a future Blagojevich campaign because it could be seen as an attempt to "curry favor."
At a Sunday news conference, Burris said for the first time that Robert Blagojevich had asked him in October to raise money for the governor. He said he replied that he could not do so "because I was raising money for other candidates, and to call me back after the election."
On Monday, however, Burris told reporters that he had "called some people about trying to see if we could put a fundraiser together . . . They said, 'We aren't giving money to the governor.' " When Robert Blagojevich called in November, Burris said, he told him of his efforts and suggested that they consider going to others.
By the time Blagojevich called a third time, Burris said, he had decided that it would be wrong to raise money or contribute money.
"I mean," Burris told reporters, "that should give some indication of my commitment right there to get out of pay-to-play."
Staff writers Perry Bacon Jr. and Paul Kane in Washington contributed to this report.