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02-16-09, 09:03 PM #1
Chicago Senator Roland Burris goes on the defense
U.S. Sen. Roland Burris said today he didn't have any inappropriate contact with allies of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich about his desire for Illinois' Senate seat, and he defended his evolving explanation of what happened as an effort to make sure all the information comes out.
"I've always conducted myself with honor and integrity," Burris said at a combative news conference, where his attorney repeatedly stepped in to try to answer questions as reporters insisted the senator take the microphone.
Burris' efforts to clear up the controversy had mixed results. Asked at one point whether federal investigators had talked to him or his aides about the Senate appointment, Burris said he had not been questioned. But he offered a qualified response to follow up questions.
"What I understand is some of the agents have reached out to my lawyers," Burris said, adding "they want to meet with me."
Later, Burris attorney Timothy Wright said "the FBI has not come to us and they're not asking us for anything." When Wright was asked about Burris' statement that investigators want to talk to him, the attorney explained that Burris "said there may have been some contact" but refused to elaborate.
The news conference was called so Burris could explain why he quietly filed a supplemental affidavit with Illinois House lawmakers that for the first time acknowledged his contacts with five Blagojevich allies, nearly a month after he testified under oath about how he got the Senate seat.
Burris was pressed about why he didn't tell Illinois lawmakers about his contact with the allies, including the governor's brother, when he was testifying under oath on Jan. 8 before the House impeachment committee. At that time, in response to Republican questioning, he only mentioned his conversation with former Blagojevich chief of staff Lon Monk.
Burris said the nature of the hearing did not provide him an opportunity to fully answer. At the hearing, Burris was asked if he had talked with anyone close to the governor about getting the Senate seat, including a list of six close Blagojevich aides and associates.
Burris responded, "I talked to some friends about my desire to be appointed, yes." He went on to mention Monk's name but he did not mention the other associates.
On Sunday, Burris told reporters his "yes" answer was an attempt to say he had talked with most of those named. He said he filed his new affidavit on Feb. 5 to make sure the information was fully disclosed.
Burris said that if lawmakers had followed up with him, he would have mentioned more of the names. He said Republicans were trying to twist his answers to make political points.
Burris also took issue with reporters asking him why he didn't feel obligated to volunteer the names at the hearing. He said lawmakers asked him to testify about how he got the appointment and argued that his conversations with Blagojevich allies were not "in reference to the appointment."
The issue of Burris' forthrightness goes beyond what he did and didn't say in testifying before a special Illinois House panel on Jan. 8 that was investigating the impeachment of Blagojevich. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and his top deputy, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, had made Burris' full and complete testimony at the impeachment hearing one of the conditions for swearing him in as a federal lawmaker.
"I've talked with Durbin and Reid and they understand what's going on," Burris said Sunday.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said Burris notified Reid and Durbin on Friday that an affidavit had been filed to clarify the new senator's testimony.
"Clearly it would have been better if Senator Burris had provided this information when he first testified," Manley said. "Senator Reid is reviewing the affidavit and will await any action by Illinois legislative leaders after they review the matter."
After hearing Burris's comment about his discussions with Reid and Durbin, Durbin spokesman Joe Schoemaker challenged the implication that Senate Democratic leaders were locked-down as allies. He said Durbin had not yet reviewed the affidavit and "has not come to a conclusion" on the matter.
Schoemaker said while Burris informed Durbin about the new affidavit on Friday, a copy of it did not arrive before Durbin left on an official trip to Europe.
"Senator Durbin has not seen any of the material," Shoemaker said. "If someone suggests he has prejudged this matter, they are wrong."
A spokesman for Gov. Patrick Quinn, who replaced Blagojevich when he was ousted by state lawmakers Jan. 29, said Quinn watched part of the news conference.
"Sen. Burris and his lawyers should disclose every thing that needs to be disclosed," Quinn said in a statement after the news conference. "The more sunlight, the better."
State Republican lawmakers had earlier lashed out at Burris, calling for his resignation and a criminal investigation into whether he perjured himself in testimony related to Blagojevich's impeachment.
"I can't believe anything that's coming from Mr. Burris, at this point," said State Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs). "... I think it would be in the best interest of the state if he resigned."
"If you have that much of a memory problem, maybe you shouldn't be in the United States Senate, on a capacity basis," added Illinois House Republican leader Tom Cross (R-Oswego.)
The comments come in the wake of the Feb. 5 amended affidavit that Burris, a Democrat, quietly sent to Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie (D-Chicago), the head of the House impeachment committee.
In the new affidavit, Burris said that former governor Rod Blagojevich's brother, Robert Blagojevich, called him three times seeking fundraising assistance.
In addition, Burris said he spoke with three other close associates of the governor and a labor leader with ties to the Blagojevich administration about being appointed to the Senate. Burris previously acknowledged only having spoken to one such friend.
"We talked about transparency, we talked about ethics," Durkin said at the downtown Chicago news conference Sunday afternoon. "The fact is, we're getting a continuously changing story from Mr. Burris."
Durkin said he would ask the now-dormant impeachment committee to refer the matter to Sangamon County State's Atty. John Schmidt, a Republican. Durkin and Cross said that if the committee does not seek the criminal investigation, they might ask for one themselves.
Cross, meanwhile, was angered that Currie did not circulate the new affidavit.
"I think the fact that this affidavit gets buried, or hidden, is very problematic," Cross said.
The lawyer who led the impeachment of ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich said it's unclear why Burris left out details in sworn testimony about how he got the Senate seat but that doesn't mean Burris committed perjury.
One question is whether Burris intended to leave out information when he testified under oath to the House committee investigating Blagojevich, said David Ellis, the Democratic lawyer who oversaw the impeachment hearings in the House and prosecuted the Senate trial that removed the governor.
"I think that Sen. Burris would be the first one to say that he did not give a complete answer in hindsight, and that's why he's giving an amended affidavit," Ellis said.
In another curious twist, Ellis said Burris' new affidavit--dated Feb. 5 -- didn't reach the office of House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie until last Wednesday. Currie (D-Chicago) chaired the impeachment committee. Both Burris and Blagojevich are Democrats.
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