Ethics Admonishes Burris Over Senate Appointment

Posted November 20, 2009 at 10:29am

Updated: 12:23 p.m.

The Senate Ethics Committee publicly admonished Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) on Friday for discrediting himself and the Senate in the way he sought appointment to the seat of now-President Barack Obama.

In a public letter of qualified admonition, the committee found that Burris “should have known that you were providing incorrect, inconsistent, misleading or incomplete information to the public, the Senate and those conducting legitimate inquiries into your appointment to the Senate.—

The letter adds, “The Committee has found that your actions and statements reflected unfavorably on the Senate.— The committee also called “inappropriate— Burris’ communications with disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s brother and chief fundraiser, Robert Blagojevich. The then-governor was arrested and later impeached on suspicion of trying to sell Obama’s seat for political favors and campaign cash. Burris accepted the appointment following Blagojevich’s arrest and gave different sworn and public statements about how he lobbied for the post and what he may have promised in return for the appointment.

Burris attempted to put a positive spin on the letter by announcing Friday morning that he had been cleared of wrongdoing.

“I am pleased that after numerous investigations, this matter has finally come to a close. I thank the members of the Senate Ethics Committee for their fair and thorough review of this matter, and now look forward to continuing the important work ahead on behalf of the people of Illinois,— Burris said in a statement.

However, the Ethics letter was not kind to Burris.

“While the Committee did not find that the evidence before it supported any actionable violations of law, Senators must meet a much higher standard of conduct,— the letter reads. The committee also accused Burris of being “less than candid— in his “shifting explanations about your sworn statements— before an Illinois state legislative panel.

Burris’ appointment has been fraught with drama since he accepted the appointment from Blagojevich, despite the fact that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) had vowed to refuse entry to any Blagojevich appointee. The former governor is now facing a federal corruption trial.

Durbin, who had joined other Illinois state leaders in urging Burris to resign earlier this year, released a statement that stopped short of accusing Burris of lying to him and Reid in the runup to his swearing-in.

“When we met with Roland Burris in January, we made it clear that in order for him to be seated in the U.S. Senate he needed to appear before the Illinois General Assembly to testify openly, honestly and completely about the nature of his relationship with the former governor, his associates and the circumstances surrounding this appointment,— Durbin said in the statement. “Since then, the accuracy and completeness of his testimony and affidavits have been called into question. The U.S. Senate Ethics Committee has completed its review into this matter and found that Sen. Burris actions have brought discredit on him and the Senate. The letter of qualified admonition from the Ethics Committee speaks for itself.—

The Ethics Committee took particular exception to Burris’ sworn statements, saying he “gave multiple and at times contradictory explanations for failing to disclose all your contacts with the Governor’s associates, which individually and collectively gave the appearance that you were being less than candid.—

In a January 2009 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.

In an FBI wiretap transcript released in May, Burris could be heard pressing the governor’s brother, who was also his chief fundraiser, for the appointment to Obama’s seat, while agreeing to try to raise money through his law partner, and “God knows, number one, I, I want to help Rod,— Burris said according to an FBI transcript of the conversation. “Number two, I also want to, you know, hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.—

The Ethics Committee said the call did not rise “to the level of an explicit quid pro quo— but was “inappropriate— because Rob Blagojevich was clearly calling to solicit campaign contributions.

“During the conversation in which you appeared to agree to write a check and even potentially raise money for Governor Blagojevich, you repeatedly brought up your desire to seek the Senate seat,— the panel wrote. “You also implied that the people you might raise money from might be unhappy if you did not receive the appointment. The committee finds that this conversation was inappropriate in its content and implications.—

Burris was seated before the second affidavit and press interviews occurred. However, both Reid and Durbin 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 had stressed to Burris that his truthful testimony before the state panel would be a condition of them agreeing to seat him.

Burris continues to ignore the calls for his resignation from the likes of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (D) and Durbin.

The Ethics letter puts allegations against Burris to rest for now. Burris, whose appointed term expires in January 2011 and who has said he would not attempt to win election to a full term next year, already dodged one bullet earlier this year when Sangamon County (Ill.) State’s Attorney John Schmidt said Burris’ vague statements to the Illinois legislative committee did not merit criminal charges. The Ethics Committee letter said the panel took the state’s attorney’s review into consideration when it was making its ruling.