Embattled Ill. Senator in Series of 'Private Meetings'

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009 4:39 PM

CHICAGO, Feb. 19 -- Sen. Roland W. Burris (D-Ill.) canceled his public events Thursday and retreated behind closed doors to plot strategy during a week that has seen his honesty questioned and his Senate future cast in doubt.

His staff remained mum about Burris's discussions. Newly hired communications director Jim O'Connor said Burris was having "private meetings" in Chicago rather than sessions with local officials in Rockford.

The subject of the meetings?

"Private's private," O'Connor said.

Will he resign?

"We haven't discussed that at all," O'Connor replied, noting that Burris intends to visit a Veterans Administration hospital and a Navy training center on Friday. "He returns to Washington, getting to work again on Monday."

Yet unlike the days in January, when a number of politicians stood to defend Burris when he was appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) to succeed President Obama, the 71-year-old politician seems largely alone.

Chicago's two main newspapers have called for his resignation. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told the Chicago Tribune from Turkey that Burris's "future in the Senate seat is in question."

The Sangamon County state's attorney and the Senate Ethics Committee have opened investigations into Burris's statements about his contacts with Blagojevich's closest advisers.

Durbin, clearly dismayed by the many and changing accounts, said in a statement issued by his office Wednesday night that "news reports and the public statements by Roland Burris himself are troubling and raise serious questions."

Recalling a session he and Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had with Burris in early January, Durbin said the senators informed Burris that he must testify "openly, honestly and completely about the nature of his relationship with the former governor, his associates and the circumstances surrounding his appointment."

Burris appeared before the Illinois House impeachment committee Jan. 8, offering an account under oath that he has since conceded was incomplete. Although he was asked explicit questions about his contacts, he said the questioners were being insufficiently persistent.

When the news broke on Dec. 9 that Blagojevich was under arrest, accused of trying to sell Obama's Senate seat, the FBI counted six candidates in the prospective pay-to-play scheme.

None of them was Burris, an amiable second-tier politician and former accountant and banker who sometimes practiced law. At 71, with his most recent victory in 1990 and four defeats since then, he seemed long retired from the rough-and-tumble.

He was still dreaming of the big-time, however, and he spoke to anyone he thought might help him: politicians, lobbyists, high school classmates from Centralia, Ill., friends of all stripes. And, as it turned out, Blagojevich's brother and at least four of his close advisers.

"He wanted to end his career with a statewide office," said friend, traveling companion and WVON radio host Cliff Kelley, who recalled Burris becoming upset when others were mentioned as potential Obama successors and he was not. "He really wanted this. He never thought he'd get it, but he was hoping for it."

Burris received the call from Blagojevich on Dec. 28, although Obama, the entire 50-member Illinois Senate Democratic caucus and the state's political establishment had warned the governor that any appointment would be tainted.

Blagojevich had other ideas. In Burris, he found an unobjectionable nominee and essentially dared the U.S. Senate to try to block him. The Democratic leadership quickly folded, following a memorable scene in the rain outside the Capitol, where Burris reported that he had been turned away.

The new junior senator was going about his business, mostly without a staff, when news broke Saturday that he had filed a fresh affidavit with a new account of dealings with five Blagojevich associates. A pair of subsequent news conferences produced still more variations, each one more troubling than the last.

Burris has moved from a Jan. 5 assertion that he had no contact with Blagojevich or his representatives to an admission this week that he tried to raise money for the governor while seeking the Senate seat. He said he was unable to find anyone willing to give and soon abandoned the effort, concluding that it would be improper.

"He has put himself in a very bad position," said Kelley, who said he believes Burris is honest. "As smart as he is, relative to standing up there before the press . . . he doesn't do as well as I would like him to."

On Wednesday, while offering details and explanations not contained in his early accounts, Burris declared, "I will continue to be transparent."

"This is one of the worst periods of Roland Burris's public life," said Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who was considered for the Senate seat but opposed the idea of a Blagojevich appointment. He described Burris as "a straight shooter, a square dude, a person that many other people would kind of joke about in terms of his honesty."

"He's probably saying, 'How did this ever happen? How did I, Roland Burris, end up with people thinking that I may have been engaged in not revealing information, or some nefarious deal-making?' "

Republicans and Democrats maddened by the state's seemingly endless political drama have called on Burris to quit, as did the Chicago Tribune. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who wants the job, said Gov. Pat Quinn (D) should remove Burris under the 17th Amendment and call a special election.

Durbin said Wednesday that Burris had not produced "the full disclosure under oath that we asked for." White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Burris was seated partly on the basis of early statements that he has since contradicted and that the people of Illinois "deserve to know the full extent of any involvement."

Laura Washington, a DePaul University professor and Chicago Sun-Times columnist, said that many African American politicians in Chicago have abandoned Burris, despite their early support when the Senate initially refused to seat him.

"The silence is deafening," she said. "There's a lot of outrage at Burris's lack of candor. I think he wanted this job really, really badly and basically spun the truth and shaved some things off the truth to get by."

Washington thinks that the rules have shifted in Illinois politics, and that Burris -- who says he did nothing improper by trying to raise money for Blagojevich while seeking the Senate seat -- was too slow to adjust.

"He could have gone out as being a revered, distinguished black officer," she said. "Instead, the last thing on that tombstone will be he didn't tell the truth when he should have."

Staff writer Kari Lydersen contributed to this report.

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