One can forgive the voting public of Illinois for not knowing whether to laugh or cry these days.
Just when it seemed that the Rod Blagojevich corruption scandal might actually recede from the spotlight, with the accused governor booted out of office and his seemingly unimpeachable Senate pick Roland Burris firmly ensconced in Washington, comes another baffling chapter in the saga. (See pictures of the remarkable world of Rod Blagojevich.)
Worse yet, the latest accusations of impropriety concern Burris himself, a former state attorney general who was appointed the state's junior Senator last month over initially loud objections from fellow Democrats and Republicans in Washington and Springfield. Burris eventually won the nod of party leadership in Washington on the basis of his long, unblemished record of public service and strong denials that he had ever bargained with Blagojevich, who allegedly tried to sell Barack Obama's senate seat (a charge Blagojevich denies). But as he returned home this past weekend to kick off a listening tour of the state he has represented for over a month, Burris suddenly faced tough questions regarding his own possibly conflicting statements about whether he had had contact last fall with Blagojevich's brother about raising money for the governor. And so now, after a whirlwind six weeks that saw the governor defiantly resist calls to resign before finally being ousted, resignation calls are echoing again.
The controversy over Burris stems from the testimony he delivered on Jan. 8 to the House panel that impeached Blagojevich. His appearance came after Blagojevich surprised all observers by making the appointment but before the Illinois Secretary of State had agreed to certify the nomination and the U.S. Senate had accepted Burris into its exclusive club. At the time, Burris testified that he had not had contact with Blagojevich's brother, who was the Governor's chief fundraiser and is also reportedly under federal scrutiny for allegedly putting the squeeze on Senate hopefuls (a charge he, too, has denied). After his testimony, Burris said: "I feel I passed the test with flying colors. I have nothing to hide."
But since then, Burris has amended his testimony in a sworn affidavit with the House's impeachment panel chair, outlining multiple conversations he had in fact had with Blagojevich's brother and other of the governor's lieutenants, which included requests for him to raise cash. The Chicago Sun-Times first disclosed the inconsistencies in a weekend report. The paper then suggested Monday that Burris only came clean after being contacted about the matter by federal investigators, something Burris denied Monday as "absolutely, positively not true." (See the Top 10 Scandals of 2008.)
Burris, who told reporters that he "conducted myself with honor and integrity," stated that he never did do any favors for the Governor and that the impeachment panel simply didn't give him the chance to answer the questions fully a claim that is getting roundly dismissed this week by state Republicans and Democrats alike. It's also one that even Burris has now contradicted. While saying "I have absolutely nothing to hide I have done nothing wrong," Burris acknowledged this week that he in fact did attempt, albeit unsuccessfully, to raise cash for the embattled governor even as he was making his interest in the potential appointment known, though he maintained there was nothing improper about his actions. "I welcome the opportunity to go before any and all investigative bodies," he told reporters Tuesday.
These shifting explanations have once again made Illinois a laughing stock. Many Republicans in the state, who since the scandal began have been pushing a special election instead of an appointment, are calling for Burris' resignation. Senate Democrats in Washington, who already thought Burris would be a weak candidate for reelection in 2010 before this latest flap, aren't exactly rising to his defense. Even top state Democrats including House Speaker Michael Madigan and his daughter, Attorney General Lisa Madigan are asking for a criminal perjury investigation by the State's Attorney for Sangamon County, which covers the capital where Burris testified. Late Tuesday, after the elder Madigan turned over reports and officially referred the case to State's Attorney John Schmidt, Schmidt's office released a statement saying "the matter is under review by this office."
Others are calling on the House panel that led the impeachment to conduct its own inquiry. And at least one Illinois Democrat has asked the U.S. Senate to launch its own ethics investigation into Burris. Though Majority Leader Harry Reid is unlikely to take any action while state legislators are looking into the matter, the Senate Ethics Committee will likely begin a preliminary inquiry.
"It's incredibly stupid on Burris' part not to be completely forthcoming. This doesn't fly," said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "They may not have asked him the right questions, but he had an obligation to restore people's faith in the system. If there's bad news, you can contain it, deal with it. Now he's created a situation where people are wondering: when are you telling the truth."
So far, Burris is showing no signs of voluntarily giving up his seat. In fact, he has stressed that he is the victim and that the media is threatening to destroy his hard-earned reputation. On Monday, Burris made his resolve clear by visiting with his political base in the state's African-American community, which rallied behind him when senate leaders like Harry Reid were initially wary of accepting Blagojevich's appointment. "We put him in, and we're going to keep him in," Rev. Willie Barrow, a leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the civil rights organization where the senator served as national executive director three decades ago, told reporters.
That means that this latest controversy isn't likely to go away any time soon, and that Illinois' elected representatives will once again be distracted from the pressing business of running the state. "You think it's all over, then we're dumbfounded," said Republican House Leader Tom Cross. "I almost thought we had hit rock bottom with the last two governors, almost like an alcoholic or some other addict hits bottom before gathering himself together to get better, get some discipline and climb out of it. Maybe, hopefully, we've hit it now." After the last couple of days, no one in Illinois is willing to call the political bottom.