Burris Still Could Face Ethics Committee Heat

Posted June 19, 2009 at 4:30pm

Updated: June 21, 5:44 p.m.

Though Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) will not face criminal perjury charges in Illinois, his conflicting accounts of how he was appointed to President Barack Obama’s Senate seat could still land him in hot water with the Senate Ethics Committee.

Ethics experts and Senate aides said Burris improved his chances of staying in the Senate when Sangamon County (Ill.) State’s Attorney John Schmidt said Friday that he would not bring charges against the embattled Senator for misleading an Illinois state legislative panel. However, the Ethics panel’s bar for wrongdoing is lower than that required to successfully prosecute someone.

“They’re not bound by what the prosecutor found, and there’s generally a different standard before the Ethics Committee … a lesser standard,— said ethics expert and lawyer Stan Brand.

Brand said Schmidt’s decision would make it “highly unlikely— that, if the Ethics Committee finds Burris acted improperly, the junior Illinois Senator would face expulsion.

“It doesn’t bind the Senate, but it’s certainly persuasive,— said Brand.

But Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said that Schmidt’s announcement would not stop his ethics watchdog group from demanding that the Ethics panel hold public hearings in which Burris would testify about his conduct leading up to his appointment by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).

“The fact that the prosecutor reached a judgment that he was not going to bring a criminal prosecution does not end this matter for the Senate,— said Wertheimer. “There is a core question here about whether Sen. Burris obtained his seat in the Senate under false pretenses.—

Wertheimer said there is “more than sufficient information to raise significant ethics questions— about Burris’ testimony to a state legislative panel that was pursuing impeachment proceedings against Blagojevich. The former governor was arrested in December for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell Obama’s seat for campaign cash and political favors. He appointed Burris after his arrest and was impeached in January.

Senate Democratic leaders initially refused to seat Burris or anyone appointed by Blagojevich, but ultimately relented — under pressure from African-American lawmakers and activists — when Burris, a former state attorney general, produced the proper state paperwork for his appointment.

In a January affidavit to the state committee, Burris told lawmakers that he had no contact with Blagojevich associates before his appointment, but during his testimony days later he said he had spoken to one Blagojevich supporter. He later revealed that he not only had multiple contacts with Blagojevich associates but that he had offered to fundraise for the then-governor.

A recently released transcript of a Burris phone call with Blagojevich’s brother and fundraiser, Rob, revealed Burris was concerned that any fundraising for the governor might appear as if he were trying to buy the seat.

Beyond Burris’ changing account to the state panel, Wertheimer said the Senate should also be concerned about whether Burris misrepresented his contacts with Blagojevich associates to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) when he met with them on Jan. 7 to urge them to seat him. Both Reid and Durbin appeared before the Ethics panel in March to discuss the Burris matter.

A spokeswoman for Ethics Chairman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) declined to comment on the timing of the panel’s investigation.

If the Ethics Committee finds Burris committed any wrongdoing, it has a variety of options to punish him. The harshest — outside of expulsion — is an official censure, which the full Senate could vote on. Most Senators who have been censured have resigned. It has been more common in recent years, however, for the panel to issue public letters of admonition that vary in severity. The committee also has been known to issue private letters to Senators regarding their official behavior.

However, the panel has historically been slow to act and has, at times, appeared to be waiting out scandals until the Member in question leaves office.

“The Ethics Committee is not known for its speed of decision,— said Brand. “They could well wait to see whether [Burris] runs— for a full term in 2010. Burris has not publicly acknowledged his plans, but he has been actively trying to fundraise.

In declining to prosecute Burris, Schmidt outlined several reasons that could affect the Ethics review.

In a letter to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Schmidt notes that Burris’ conversations with Blagojevich associates “were not substantive discussions concerning how to get the appointment, but rather Burris imploring the listener to tell Governor Blagojevich he was interested.—

Schmidt also notes that Burris volunteered to give state lawmakers the names of people to contact regarding his push to be appointed.

In the end, Schmidt said in a statement, “There is insufficient evidence to prove Senator Burris made a statement he knew to be false.—

He added, “Some of his statements were vague, but vague statements cannot support a perjury charge.—

Still, Senate aides said that regardless of what happens to Burris, his association with Blagojevich has tainted his reputation with his Senate colleagues.

“The way that he got here, the person who brought him here, and the appearance of impropriety will stay with him,— said one knowledgeable Senate Democratic aide.

That may be, but Burris appears unfazed.

On Saturday, Burris was asked about the recent opinion clearing him of the perjury charges. While he wouldn’t discuss what it means for his future in the Senate, Burris did suggest he has been absolved of any wrongdoing.

“I’m very pleased with what the Sangamon County state’s attorney presented, that there was no pay-to-play, and I’m fully vindicated from any of those charges, and I look forward now to doing my job in the U.S. Senate,” Burris said in an article published Sunday in the Chicago Sun-Times.