Who Would You Have to Kill to Get an Unqualified Admonition?

           The Senate Ethics Committee has issued a letter of “qualified admonition” to Senator Roland Burris regarding sworn and unsworn statements made by the Senator regarding the circumstances of his appointment to the Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama.  Burris, of course, was appointed by then-Governor Rod Blagojevich, who subsequently was impeached and indicted for misconduct that included attempting to sell that same Senate seat.  The Committee informs Senator Burris that “you 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 Committee points in particular to Burris’s January 5, 2009 affidavit, in which he averred that he was contacted on December 26, 2008 by Sam Adams, Jr., an attorney employed by Governor Blagojevich (and a fine beer), who asked if he would be interested in accepting the Governor’s appointment to the Senate seat.  In the final paragraph of the affidavit, Burris states: “Prior to the December 26, 2008 telephone call from Mr. Adams, Jr., there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Governor Blagojevich or any of his representatives regarding my appointment to the United States Senate.”  (emphasis added) 

            Unfortunately for Burris, this statement is difficult to reconcile with a conversation that he had with Rob Blagojevich, the Governor’s brother, on November 13, 2008.  Even more unfortunately for him, that conversation was tape recorded by federal investigators, and the transcript was produced to the Senate Ethics Committee.  

            The conversation was initiated by Blagojevich, who called Burris to seek his help in raising money for his brother’s campaign.  Burris, however, quickly brought up the subject of the Senate seat, telling Blagojevich “I’m very much interested in, in trying to replace Obama.”  The remainder of the conversation continues in that vein, as Blagojevich and Burris strategize as to how Burris could raise funds for the Governor without creating a public trail which might make it more difficult for Burris to be appointed.  As Burris summarized toward the end of the conversation: “number one, I, I wanna help Rod.  Number two, I also wanna, you know hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.” 

            Burris’s affidavit, therefore, would seem to be clearly false.  Moreover, the November 13 conversation was highly relevant to the inquiries being conducted with regard to Burris’s Senate appointment by Governor Blagojevich, who, as the Committee notes, “had recently been arrested and charged with corruptly using his authority to make a Senate appointment in exchange for campaign contributions and other benefits.”  As the Committee rather mildly puts it, “you should have known that any conversations you had about your desire to seek the Senate seat and about any possible fundraising for the Governor were critical to these inquiries.” 

            You think?   

            Furthermore, Burris had plenty of further opportunities to disclose the November 13 conversation prior to the time that he was seated by the Senate.  The Committee notes that “despite repeated and specific questioning, you did not disclose [the November conversation]” to the Illinois House Impeachment Committee at a January 8, 2009 hearing.  Similarly, Burris failed to disclose this conversation during meetings with Senate leaders and the press during this time period   

            Finally, the Committee notes that Burris has given “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.” 

            To put the matter plainly, Burris repeatedly failed to disclose his conversation with Rob Blagojevich, despite knowing that this conversation was critical to both the Illinois legislature and U.S. Senate on matters of the utmost importance to the public interest (the impeachment of a Governor and the seating of a U.S. Senator, respectively).  Moreover, his conflicting and unpersuasive explanations of this failure leave little alternative but to conclude that it was intentional. 

            In deciding nonetheless to give Burris the lightest possible punishment (a “qualified” admonition), the Committee apparently gave great weight to the fact the Sangamon County State’s Attorney found “no actionable violations of law.”  This, however, would seem a slender reed to support the Committee’s action (or inaction).  The state prosecutor decided that there was insufficient evidence to charge Burris with perjury.  It appears that this decision was based largely on the fact that in testifying before the Illinois Impeachment Committee, Burris gave incomplete, but not false, answers to broad questions.  With regard to the January 5 affidavit, the state prosecutor apparently accepted Burris’s explanation that his statement was meant only to refer to discussions regarding his actual appointment, not merely to his interest in getting an appointment.  Although this explanation might be sufficient to avoid a perjury charge, it is also one that the Committee itself found wanting.   

            In the context of intentional withholding of critical information from the Senate about a matter of such importance, one would think that at least a serious slap on the wrist would be warranted.   

But apparently one would be mistaken.

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