PI Original Josh Kalven Thursday May 28th, 2009, 10:38am

Burris' Excuses Continue To Defy Reason (UPDATED)

Yesterday's interviews with Roland Burris focused largely on this question: Does the newly-released tape of him speaking to Robert Blagojevich in November 2008 amount to evidence of "pay to play"?  I'm somewhat sympathetic to Eric Zorn's interpretation: "Burris ...

Yesterday's interviews with Roland Burris focused largely on this question: Does the newly-released tape of him speaking to Robert Blagojevich in November 2008 amount to evidence of "pay to play"?  I'm somewhat sympathetic to Eric Zorn's interpretation: "Burris wasn't trying to buy the Senate seat. He was trying to stay in Gov. Blagojevich's good graces while avoiding the appearance of any conflict of interest."  But the whole discussion seems off-target. 

What's clear is this: The "pay to play" debate should have occurred before Burris was sworn in as a U.S. Senator.  But thanks to a misleading affidavit and some incomplete answers to the House impeachment committee back in January, he made his way into office.  Only then, did we get the full story (in drips and drabs, no less).

What's frustrating is that Burris continues to claim that both his original affidavit and testimony were perfectly appropriate.  Here he is talking to the State-Journal Register's Bernard Schoenburg yesterday (the video is cued to the relevant section):

When Jim Warren referred on MSNBC to Burris' "Antonin Scalia, strict-constructionist-like" parsing, this is what he was talking about. 

First, let's take Burris' defense of the assertion in his January 4 affidavit that, prior to being offered the seat on December 26, "there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Gov. Blagojevich or any of his representatives regarding my appointment to the United States Senate."  Here's what he told Schoenburg:

"There's a major difference between who talked to me from the governor's office about the seat -- and who I was talking to about the seat. ... I was talking to the governor's people about wanting to get appointed to the seat.  The committee asked me to come talk about my appointment to the seat.  So that affidavit dealt with my appointment. The only time anybody from the governor's office talked to me about the appointment was when that lawyer showed up at my house on the 26th."

We heard this one back in mid-February and it was just as ridiculous then as it is now.  Burris is arguing here that the committee only wanted to hear about what happened between December 26th (when Burris was officially offered the seat) and December 28th (when he was officially appointed).  As the letter accompanying that original affidavit suggests, the committee's intention was to learn about the "events leading up to his appointment."  Certainly, Burris expressing interest in the Senate seat in the context of a fundraising call from the governor's brother should have qualified as such an "event."

Then there's Burris' account to Schoenburg of what happened during the January 8 testimony:

"What we said at the testimony was absolutely correct.  This Republican [Rep. Jim Durkin] called off all these names.  How many names did he call?  Five or six, right? And the only one we ended up talking about -- because he was the only one I sat down and met with in my office -- was Lon Monk. That's how we ended up with Lon Monk.  And they never did go back to those other names, which I didn't even remember that they had been asked."

Here's the exchange with Durkin referenced by Burris above:

And via the full transcript (PDF), here's the follow-up question he got from Rep. Jil Tracy later in the hearing:

TRACY: You said that you had visited friends perhaps in September of '08 or July of '08 concerning a desire to perhaps be appointed as a senator if our President-elect was elected.  And could you give me the names of those friends?

BURRIS: I don't think I said in July.  I said they were friends that I contacted after the election, but I was talking to people.  I mean, I don't know who you want as my friends that I consider as persons.  For example, when I handled a press conference to express my interest in the seat ... some of my friends were there for instance. ... One of those persons was the former Justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, Justice Cousins.  And then some other friends that supported me to seek to be appointed to the seat. [...]

TRACY:  So you don't recall that there was anybody else besides Lon Monk that you expressed that interest to at that point? 

BURRIS:  No, I can't recall.

TRACY: Is there anybody that comes to mind in that light that you can --

BURRIS: Yes, Rich Barber from Summerset, New Jersey.

Burris then goes on to recall a conversation in which Barber told him he would make a great senator.  He also notes that members of his 1955 high school class were contacting him.  Finally, he adds this:

BURRIS: I can start giving you names of people who you can follow up after that, after November 4th, I can certainly give you a few names, but I can't give you the thousands of people who were involved in this.

As you can see, Burris had ample opportunity to bring up the relevant "friends" -- i.e., the ones who worked with then-Gov. Blagojevich. Instead, we hear about some guy from New Jersey, a court justice buddy, and his old high school classmates.  According to Burris, he had to be asked directly about the Blagojevich associates.  Because Tracy didn't do so, he's apparently off the hook.

Like I said, ridiculous.

UPDATE (1:45 p.m.):  The Tribune has these quotes from Burris today:

“See, you all have got it all backwards,” Burris said. “It is not upon a person who is testifying to go out of his way on anything. It is the person who has to ask the questions.” [...]

“Why should I have to, in your estimation, in your assessment, go out of my way to answer a question when I was answering questions that were asked?” Burris asked reporters. “Why didn’t the impeachment committee follow up with the questions to ask me?”

But as the transcript above shows, Burris did go "out of his way" to name some of the innocuous "friends" to whom he'd expressed interest in the appointment.  No one asked him directly about the guy from New Jersey, the judge, or the former classmates.  He offered those names up and talked about them at length.  At the same time, he failed to mention that he'd talked to the governor's brother about the seat in the context of a fundraising call.

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