Leaders Probed on Burris

Ethics Panel Hears Reid, Durbin

Posted March 18, 2009 at 6:56pm

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday got drawn further into the drama over Sen. Roland Burris’ (D-Ill.) controversial appointment, as they found themselves in the uncomfortable position of giving information to the Senate Ethics Committee about the embattled Senator’s questionable push to join the world’s most exclusive club.

Senate sources confirmed that both leaders were asked to appear on the Burris matter but said that they are not suspected of any wrongdoing themselves and were not asked to testify under oath.

From the day last year that then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was arrested on suspicion of trying to auction off the vacant Senate seat of President Barack Obama for political favors, both men sought to avoid just the scenario that they were confronted with Wednesday.

Initially, they refused to seat anyone tainted by Blagojevich, who has since been impeached and removed from office. But the two eventually relented when African-American leaders in Congress and across the state began to imply Burris’ race was a factor in the leaders’ delay in seating him.

Still, the fact that Reid and Durbin were called before the panel is the first sign that the Ethics Committee’s Burris inquiry, which began a little more than a month ago, may be proceeding at a relatively rapid pace.

On her way into the meeting with Durbin, Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) refused to comment on when the committee might make a determination on whether Burris did anything improper or broke Senate ethics rules in his pursuit of the seat.

Durbin also was tight-lipped when he left the Ethics Committee office Wednesday afternoon, saying only, “I was asked to appear before the Senate Ethics Committee and tell the story about what happened leading up to the appointment of Sen. Burris, and I did.—

Reid testified earlier in the day. His office had no comment.

In a subsequent statement, Durbin did not elaborate on what he told Members but said he was cooperating with both the Ethics panel and a state prosecutor who is exploring whether Burris should be charged with perjury for his conflicting statements about how he secured the Senate post. Durbin revealed that he met with Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt (R) last week.

“In both instances, I shared my recollections of events leading up to and following Sen. Burris’ appointment to the Senate,— Durbin said in the statement. “Sen. Burris deserves a fair and impartial investigation; the people of Illinois deserve to know the truth and everyone deserves that this matter be brought to a timely conclusion.—

Burris’ attorney, Tim Wright, said the Senator has not been contacted by the Ethics Committee, nor has he spoken to the state prosecutor’s office.

Asked about the substance of the meetings, a Boxer spokeswoman pointed to the Senate Ethics Manual, which notes that preliminary inquiries may include “any inquiries, interviews, sworn statements, depositions, or subpoenas deemed appropriate to obtain the information to make any required determination. An opportunity to respond to the allegations or information may also be provided to any known respondent (or his or her representative).—

With Reid, Durbin and Ethics Committee members refusing to talk about the Burris inquiry, it was not clear exactly what avenue of questioning the panel pursued. But one likely topic was the details of the leaders’ Jan. 7 meeting with Burris, in which they talked to the new Illinois Senator about his contacts with Blagojevich and the governor’s associates prior to the appointment.

That meeting came amid the furor over whether to seat Burris in the first place.

The Ethics inquiry and the state attorney’s probe were spurred by Burris’ changing accounts over whom he spoke to before winning Blagojevich’s nod.

The Ethics panel, historically, has avoided investigations of Senators’ actions before they join the chamber, but there is precedent for probing activities that were related to how they secured the Senate seat.

The panel could ultimately find that Burris’ conduct brought disgrace on the chamber and recommend anything from a mild rebuke to censure or expulsion. But most ethics experts say no formal committee decision is likely to be made while the Illinois investigation is under way.

Federal authorities arrested Blagojevich on Dec. 9 on suspicion of attempting to auction off the seat and other charges. Blagojevich tapped Burris for the seat on Dec. 30.

In an affidavit to the state panel investigating Blagojevich, Burris denied ever having spoken to any of the then-governor’s associates leading up to his appointment.

In early January, Burris testified before the Illinois panel — the day after meeting with Reid and Durbin — that he had spoken with one Blagojevich aide. Burris later filed a voluntary affidavit saying he had spoken with as many as five Blagojevich associates, and he admitted in press interviews to having tried to raise campaign funds for the governor while he was lobbying for the seat.

Burris was seated before the second affidavit and press interviews occurred. However, both leaders were concerned about accepting a tainted appointee into the chamber, and, at first, floated the idea of sending the matter to the Rules and Administration Committee for vetting. They eventually swore in Burris after he received the proper appointment papers and testified before the Illinois legislative committee. The two stressed to Burris that his truthful testimony before that panel would be a condition of them agreeing to seat him.

In the meantime, Burris continues to ignore the calls for his resignation from the likes of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Durbin, and he went about Senate business as usual Wednesday. While Durbin was taking questions from Ethics Committee members, Burris joined his fellow Senators in outrage over multimillion-dollar bonuses for executives of troubled insurance giant American International Group.

Adding to the potential awkwardness between the two men, both Senators planned to attend the weekly constituent coffee that they hold every Thursday morning.