TOPICS > Politics

New Details Emerge on Burris-Blagojevich Conversations

May 27, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago updates the story around allegations that Illinois Sen. Roland Burris was involved in a pay-to-play scheme with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to obtain his post.

GWEN IFILL: Now new questions for Democratic Senator Roland Burris. Burris was appointed to fill President Obama’s Illinois seat in December by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The governor, however, was later removed from office and is awaiting trial on charges he tried to sell the Senate seat to Burris.

In sworn testimony, Burris has told federal investigators there was no quid pro quo. Today, authorities released the audio of a wiretapped conversation in which Burris is heard discussing the seat with the governor’s brother.

SEN. ROLAND BURRIS (D), Illinois: God knows, number one, I want to help Rod. Number two, I also want to — you know, I hope I get a consideration to get that appointment.

GWEN IFILL: Outside his home in Chicago today, Burris said he did nothing wrong.

SEN. ROLAND BURRIS: Did I want to be appointed to the Senate seat? Yes, I did. I told everyone who would listen that I was interested in being appointed to the seat. Did I try to buy the seat? Never.

While I wanted to keep my commitment to make a personal contribution, I did not because of the perception of impropriety that might arise. Did I commit perjury? No.

Federal court unsealed transcripts

GWEN IFILL: For more, we're joined now by NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago. She's been covering this story since the beginning.

Elizabeth, welcome back.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: Why are these tapes just now coming to light?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, they're actually coming to light because the Senate Ethics Committee, which is also doing an investigation of Sen. Burris and how he obtained the seat, asked for them. And so they've been sealed, but they asked them to be unsealed, and so the federal court ruled that they could be unsealed, and that's why we're just hearing them now.

GWEN IFILL: OK, we just heard a small portion of what was on that tape today, but after your listening to them and comparing them to previous statements that Sen. Burris has made about this issue, are their inconsistencies? And if there are, what are they?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, there are inconsistencies between the tape and what he said before the Illinois House Impeachment Committee, and that's really the problem for Sen. Burris.

There are some problems with what he said on the tape, for sure, but the real problem for him is that he went before the House Impeachment Committee in Illinois and he said that he had never had a conversation with anyone other than one aide, Lon Monk, to Gov. Blagojevich, about the Senate seat. And he was under oath, and that's what he said.

Then, shortly after that, he did write another affidavit and said, Whoops, I forgot a few people. I did have a conversation with Robert Blagojevich, who is Rod Blagojevich's brother and his chief fundraiser, but he never said in that affidavit that he had agreed to raise any money for the governor, so that's the inconsistency.

The 'pay-to-play' issue

GWEN IFILL: So let's put this in context. In this tape, it's the phone call Robert Blagojevich initiates, the governor's brother, calls Roland Burris in his office, and is asking him to raise money for the governor before the end-of-the-year deadline. And the response then from Sen. Burris or then former Comptroller Burris is what?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, you know, he kind of goes back and forth. He says, I really want to help Rod. I've always been a supporter of the governor, which he had. He'd raised money for him consistently, and he had a commitment to raise some money for him. I want to do that, but, you know, I really also would like to be considered for the appointment to the U.S. Senate seat, Barack Obama's Senate seat. So I'm concerned about how it would look if I gave money.

And Robert Blagojevich was very sort of noncommittal throughout much of this tape. I talked to his attorney, Robert Blagojevich's attorney today, who said he wanted this tape to be released, because he doesn't think it put his client, Robert Blagojevich, in any kind of legal difficulty. He says it doesn't look like he's asking him for anything that would resemble pay-to-play.

And interestingly enough, Roland Burris' attorney also agreed to have this tape released, because they didn't think it made Roland Burris look like he'd engaged in pay-to-play. It seems to be -- that interpretation seems to be in the eye of the beholder.

GWEN IFILL: So he didn't actually ask for money in exchange for the Senate seat, but he happened to conveniently bring up that he wanted the Senate seat at the time he was being asked for money?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Right, he certainly -- Robert Blagojevich certainly asked for money, and Roland Burris certainly said he would try to raise the money. In the end, he even said that he would give him a personal check for $1,500. It turns out he never did.

So now today Roland Burris was saying, I never gave him any money. Therefore, there can't be any accusations of pay-to-play, because I never followed through on that commitment.

500 hours of tapes

GWEN IFILL: It's been a while since we've heard anything about what Sen. Burris is up to. What is the status of either the Senate ethics investigation or the federal investigation?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Senate ethics investigation, I did talk to them today, and they pretty much told me that, We're not going to tell you what the status is. But it certainly is -- it must be underway, as we know, because they requested the tapes. So that is underway.

And the federal investigation into Rod Blagojevich is underway. It will probably be at least a year or so before that trial takes place. For one thing, Rod Blagojevich still hasn't assembled his legal team, partly because he's really broke and doesn't have much money to get a legal team assembled, but he's still trying to do that.

And Robert Blagojevich has an attorney, but this case is going to be so complicated. For instance, we heard just a little snippet of the tape today. There are 500 hours of recorded tapes.

So, one, defense attorneys have to listen to 500 hours of recorded tapes, as do the prosecutors. So that alone, not to mention the other voluminous documents, it's going to be a while before this case finally gets to court.

GWEN IFILL: So Sen. Burris has been here in Washington acting as the sitting senator from Illinois. How is he generally being received back home as a senator?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Well, he's being received fairly well, but, you know, he just can't get past the way he was appointed. Now today, the senior senator from Illinois, Sen. Durbin, said that he was very disappointed when he heard the transcript, because it did appear to him that Roland Burris had not been truthful when he had appeared before the Illinois House Impeachment Committee.

And Sen. Durbin said, You know, we went to bat for him. We said that he could come -- you know, we approved his appointment in the Senate as long as he went first to the Illinois impeachment panel and told them the truth about what had happened. So Sen. Durbin said today that there's no way that he would support Sen. Burris for a re-election bid.

Ongoing perjury investigation

GWEN IFILL: So the next shoe to drop, we think, more tapes?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Oh, there certainly are more tapes. I think the next shoe to drop -- well, we'll have to see what these panels do, certainly, the Senate Ethics Committee.

There's also an investigation going on charging Burris with perjury, seeing if he has perjured himself by the Sangamon County state's attorney. That's the county where Springfield, the state capital, is. So that investigation is going on.

That was supposed to be over very quickly, in three weeks, we were told, but it's been three months. So the results of those two investigations will be critical to the future of Sen. Burris for sure.

GWEN IFILL: Well, we know you'll be all over it. Elizabeth Brackett in Chicago, thanks a lot.