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Burris defends contacts with Blagojevich

February 16, 2009|Rick Pearson and Janet Hook

CHICAGO AND WASHINGTON — Sen. Roland Burris tried Sunday to quell new questions about his controversial appointment to the Senate, insisting he shouldn't be blamed for only recently detailing his conversations about the job with five associates of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

The Chicago Democrat said he didn't provide a full explanation because nobody pressed the point during his sworn testimony last month to Illinois House lawmakers who impeached Blagojevich. Burris accused state Republicans of playing politics by calling for an investigation into whether he had committed perjury and even asking for his resignation.

But Burris' evolving explanation of what happened took another twist when he said federal investigators wanted to talk about his appointment to the Senate seat vacated by President Obama that Blagojevich was charged with trying to sell.

"What I understand is some of the agents have reached out to my lawyers," Burris said, adding that "they want to meet with me."

Burris' lawyer, Timothy Wright, acknowledged that Burris might be on a covert recording in the Blagojevich investigation but declined to explain the senator's comment about meeting with federal agents, saying "the FBI has not come to us and they're not asking us for anything."

Burris alternatively looked nervous and feisty at a news conference in Chicago just a day after information emerged from a new affidavit filed by him Feb. 5 that described deeper contact with Blagojevich and his allies. Wright said the senator decided to file a new affidavit "to make sure there was nothing left out."

At the news conference, Burris and his lawyer at times gave contradictory answers or no answers when pressed on whether he told the whole truth about his role.

Blagojevich's defiant selection of Burris, three weeks after the then-governor was arrested on federal corruption charges, set off a national furor.

Senate Democrats at first balked at seating Burris, but the veteran African American politician portrayed himself as a worthy successor to Obama with few if any connections to the scandal-plagued governor.

Yet Burris has gradually acknowledged deeper connections to Blagojevich and a growing list of contacts with former aides, lobbyists and campaign supporters of the then-governor.

On Sunday, Burris said he had always been forthright about his contacts.

"At no time did I ever make any inconsistent statement," he said. "As I have said previously in my testimony before the Illinois House impeachment committee, as I stated in my voluntary affidavit to the head of the same committee, and as I said to you again now: Yes, I had contact with representatives and friends of the former governor about the Senate seat -- none of it inappropriate."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and his top deputy, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), had made Burris' full and complete testimony at the impeachment hearing one of the conditions for swearing him in as a federal lawmaker.

On Sunday, Burris said he had talked with Durbin and Reid "and they understand what's going on."

But spokesmen for the Senate leaders said they hadn't yet seen Burris' new affidavit and were withholding judgment.

"Clearly it would have been better if Sen. Burris had provided this information when he first testified," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.

Durbin's spokesman, Joe Shoemaker, said the affidavit did not arrive before Durbin left on an official trip to Europe.

Burris' first description of his contacts with Blagojevich came in a sworn affidavit to the impeachment panel on Jan. 5, in which he attested that other than speaking to one of Blagojevich's lawyers on Dec. 26 about his interest in the Senate seat, "there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Gov. Blagojevich or any of his representatives regarding my appointment to the U.S. Senate."

Three days later, Burris appeared before the impeachment panel to give sworn testimony. He was asked specifically about any contact he had with Blagojevich insiders including Robert Blagojevich, the former governor's brother, as well as then-current and former aides John Harris, John Wyma, Lon Monk and Doug Scofield.

Burris testified only about a discussion he had with Monk in July.

But in the recently filed affidavit, Burris acknowledged that he had spoken with those associates as well as with labor leader Ed Smith, also an ally of the former governor. Burris also said that Robert Blagojevich had called him three times -- once in October and twice shortly after the Nov. 4 election -- to seek his help in fundraising for the then-governor, but that he declined to contribute.

The new affidavit prompted calls by Illinois House Republicans, including Rep. Jim Durkin, to convene the Democratic-led House impeachment panel and ask it to refer Burris' affidavits and testimony to local prosecutors to determine whether Burris had committed perjury during his testimony before the Illinois House impeachment panel.

Democratic state Rep. Susanna Mendoza, an alternate member of the impeachment panel, said she did not believe Burris had been "forthright and honest" in his answers to the committee in light of his newly filed affidavit and said she would support an investigation of the new senator.

"They can try to worm their way out of this as lawyers, but to the regular people this is the equivalent of lying," Mendoza said.


Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Long contributed to this report.

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