Lame-Duck Burris Makes Plea for K Street Cash

Posted July 27, 2010 at 5:55pm

Democratic Members are working overtime in the final days before the August recess to stock their campaign coffers to stem expected electoral losses this fall. But that desperation over November hasn’t stopped Sen. Roland Burris, who is not running for re-election, from putting his hand out for contributions.

The Illinois Democrat, who replaced President Barack Obama in the Senate, is holding a “Chicago-style birthday reception” next week at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters headquarters to help retire his 2010 primary debt.

The event comes a day after Burris’ 73rd birthday.

Burris isn’t the only headliner at the event. Several freshman Democrats are coming to his aid: Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Ted Kaufman (Del.) and Jeff Merkley (Ore.) are all listed as “special guests” at the event, according to an invitation obtained by Roll Call. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Mark Udall (Colo.) are also expected to attend.

While the Teamsters has ties to Illinois, group spokeswoman Leigh Strope said in an e-mail that the union’s “building is the venue, and space is being rented for the event.”

Burris is trying to retire debts that he incurred in the process of getting seated to the Senate. Burris’ campaign committee is about $142,000 in debt, according to Federal Election Commission reports filed at the end of June.

He also has legal bills of about $650,000.

Much of the campaign committee debt came from flying his lawyers and public relations team members from Illinois to Washington, D.C., when Senate Democrats were considering blocking Burris’ appointment, calling it tainted because then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was accused of trying to trade the seat for personal gain.

Burris’ legal bills stem from his defense in ethics and perjury investigations related to his accepting the Senate seat. The legal defense fund allows individuals to contribute up to $10,000.

‘Help Me Out’

Burris said this is one of several fundraisers that his chief of staff has put together to “help me out.”

The Congressional Black Caucus and Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) have also done events for the Illinois Democrat.

“It’s been awful,” Burris said of trying to repay the debt before he leaves office this fall. “We haven’t gotten anywhere near [paying off the bills].”

Several K Streeters said they weren’t surprised Burris is having trouble raising funds.

Despite Burris’ colleagues headlining the event, the lobbyists questioned who would give to Burris given the tough electoral environment and his impending exit after the November elections.

Burris can only serve through Nov. 2, according to a recent Illinois court ruling.

“Making sure people don’t get off the reservation would be the only justifiable reason why you would want to give to him unless you have some particular affinity [for Burris],” one Democratic lobbyist said.

Not Out of Bounds

Despite the naysayers, ethics lawyers said the event is within the bounds of campaign finance law.

“Most incumbents don’t have debt, although many do, and in those cases, it’s certainly not unusual for the candidate to hold a fundraiser for his or her debt,” said Ken Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

Burris can raise money to pay down the debt, and if he exceeds that amount, it can be attributed to another campaign account, Gross said.

Still, Burris has already attracted support from colleagues and corporate political action committees.

Democratic Michigan Reps. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick and John Conyers contributed $4,000 and $2,000, respectively, to Burris. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and lobbying firm mCapitol Management have all contributed to Burris through their PACs.