Watchdog Groups Renew Call for Hearings on Burris

Posted June 2, 2009 at 1:06pm

Updated: 4:53 p.m.

Government reform advocates renewed calls Tuesday for the Senate Ethics Committee to hold a public hearing on its review of Sen. Roland Burris’ (D-Ill.) appointment to the chamber by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declined Tuesday to discuss the ongoing Senate and state investigations into Burris’ appointment during a press conference.

In a letter to Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Vice Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer called for a public session to include testimony from Burris.

“We are writing to again call on the Senate Ethics Committee to hold prompt public hearings on Senator Roland Burris and matters related to his appointment to the Senate,— the letter states. “Recent published reports strongly confirm the need for the Committee to clear the air on this matter in a public setting.—

In late May, U.S. District Judge James Holderman authorized the release of FBI wiretaps to the Senate Ethics panel. Transcripts of the recordings detail a late 2008 conversation in which Burris and the ex-governor’s brother, Robert Blagojevich, discuss Burris’ interest in a Senate appointment as well as how he could raise or donate funds to Blagojevich’s campaign.

“Citizens are entitled to a public accounting under oath by Senator Burris before the Senate Ethics Committee about what transpired regarding his appointment to the Senate,— the letter states.

The groups made a similar request in February but have received no response from the committee.

In addition to the Senate Ethics probe, Burris faces investigations from Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt (R) over whether he committed perjury when he appeared before an Illinois House committee to testify about his contacts with Rod Blagojevich and his associates leading up to his appointment to the Senate.

The former Illinois governor was charged in late 2008 in a federal investigation alleging that he sought to sell the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. He was subsequently impeached and removed from office.

Reid deflected questions Tuesday about Burris’ honesty in the wake of his appointment, including a discussion with the Senate Majority Leader that preceded his confirmation to the chamber.

“Senator Burris now has a criminal investigation going on in the state of Illinois. There is a proceeding taking place in the Senate Ethics Committee,— Reid said. “I have testified before the Senate Ethics Committee, and I’m not going to get into, at this stage, what he said to me, what he didn’t say to me.—

“A lot of it is a public record, so I can’t judge,— Reid added. “You folks will have to judge that. And certainly there are people who are looking at this in the state of Illinois and in the Ethics Committee.—

The Nevada Senator also refused to address whether Illinois should have moved to hold a special election to fill the Senate seat, rather than allow the then-governor, who had been accused but not yet indicted of a pay-to-play scheme to sell the seat, to make an appointment.

“I’m not going to look hindsight,— Reid said. “I told, as you know, Blagojevich, I told him with no uncertain terms, in fact even in writing, that he shouldn’t appoint anyone. But he did. But that’s who he is, that’s who he was.—