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Illinois Democrats call for Burris investigation

Admissions about the senator's contacts with Blagojevich advisors raises questions over his appointment by the ousted governor, who is charged with trying to sell President Obama's senate seat.

February 17, 2009|Rick Pearson, John Chase and Ray Long

CHICAGO — Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan led a growing chorus of state Democratic officials Monday calling for a deeper investigation of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris' explanation about how he was appointed by ousted Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

Burris has maintained there was nothing inconsistent between his testimony before a special state legislative panel and a recently filed affidavit outlining more extensive contact with Blagojevich insiders than he had previously disclosed.

But Illinois Republicans pressed their call for a perjury investigation by the county prosecutor, and on Monday, Democrats expressed increasing discomfort over Burris' evolving explanation of efforts to get the seat.

"This is a particularly frustrating revelation," Madigan said of disclosures by Burris that he had contact with a half-dozen Blagojevich insiders. "I encourage the Sangamon County state's attorney to take a closer look at this in the interest of truth, integrity and transparency."

Burris, who embarked on a statewide listening tour to mark his first month in office, offered an emotional defense after speaking at a Presidents Day dinner.

"They can look at it," he said when informed of Madigan's comments. "I have absolutely nothing to hide here."

Burris said that political accusations were threatening to ruin his reputation and that he would appear before state lawmakers or anyone else to preserve it.

"I will go anywhere. I'm going to talk to the feds," Burris said. "I have done nothing wrong."

State Sen. David Koehler and state Rep. Mike Smith, who were at the dinner, each questioned whether Burris had been truthful. Both called for a renewed investigation by the Illinois House committee that took Burris' testimony as part of the impeachment investigation of Blagojevich.

"He was seated as a United States senator based on his testimony to our committee, that's I think the most disappointing part about this," said state Rep. Jack Franks, another Democrat. "I feel absolutely betrayed by this."

Franks, in a phone interview, called for a criminal investigation by Madigan or the county prosecutor.

"Right now, certainly the main question is no longer about his political life, it's on life support because of this. It is now a question of whether there is a criminal aspect to this," Franks said.

Burris began his statewide tour by returning to his political base -- meeting at a church on Chicago's South Side with African American ministers.

In the meeting, he denied that he recently filed an affidavit -- outlining for the first time his contacts with five close confidantes of the former governor -- because federal authorities had told him he was on secret recordings used in Blagojevich's arrest.

"Positively not true," said Burris, who a day earlier acknowledged that federal authorities want to speak with him about the circumstances surrounding the appointment.

After an hourlong meeting, Burris left the church, escorted by several clergy members, including Rev. Willie Barrow. Barrow, a leader of the civil rights organization Operation PUSH, where the senator served as national executive director three decades ago, said the African American community helped influence Blagojevich to appoint Burris.

"We put him in, and we're going to keep him in," Barrow said.

Burris was selected by Blagojevich three weeks after the governor was arrested on corruption charges that included trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Obama. Burris has portrayed himself as an elder statesman untainted by the scandal and chosen at a moment of crisis to help the state.

But Burris' own words in recent days show the former state attorney general steadily reached out to nearly every major insider in Blagojevich's ever-shrinking circle of advisors.

In the months before Obama's election, Burris spoke to the governor's current and former chief of staff, his chief of staff when Blagojevich was in the state House, his ex-deputy governor and political consultant, a labor leader close to Blagojevich and the governor's brother, who asked him for fundraising help.

Burris made no secret of his interest in the Senate seat.

Many of those Burris spoke to are part of the criminal case federal authorities are building against the former governor.

--

rpearson@tribune.com

jchase@tribune.com

rlong@tribune.com

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