Political ethics group Democracy 21 calls for public hearings on Burris senatorial appointment

The ethics watchdog group "Democracy 21" is calling on the Senate ethics committee to hold public hearings on the circumstances surrounding the appointment of U.S. Sen.

Roland Burris.
Burris has been under fire since the Chicago Sun-Times revealed in February that Burris had discussions about fund-raising with Blagojevich that he did not disclose during testimony before an Illinois House impeachment panel. When the Sun-Times raised questions with Burris, he provided supplemental testimony that had not been made public.
The Sun-Times then first disclosed last week that Burris was on tape promising to send Rod Blagojevich a check by mid-December. Burris did not disclose this promise of money in the Feb. 4 supplemental testimony he submitted to state House leaders.

Democracy 21 Calls on Senate Ethics Committee to Conduct Prompt Public Hearings on Senator Burris Affair
Tuesday, June 02, 2009

In a letter sent today to Senate Ethics Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Ranking Republican Member Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer called on the Ethics Committee "to hold prompt public hearings on Senator Roland Burris and matters related to his appointment to the Senate."

The letter stated that Democracy 21 had previously sent a letter to the Senate Ethics Committee on February 24, 2009 calling for public hearings "in which Senator Roland Burris (D-IL) is called to testify on his contradictory and conflicting statements, made under oath, regarding the circumstances surrounding his appointment to the Senate."

The February 24 letter noted that published reports had indicated that Senator Burris "may have misrepresented his contacts and conversations with former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and his associates" and "may have attempted to raise campaign contributions for the former Governor, in contradiction to his sworn testimony and public statements."

According to today’s letter, "Recent published reports strongly confirm the need for the Committee to clear the air on this matter in a public setting. Citizens are entitled to a public accounting under oath by Senator Burris before the Senate Ethics Committee about what transpired regarding his appointment to the Senate. "Senate Ethics Committee rules provide that the Committee "may hold a public or executive hearing in any preliminary inquiry, adjudicatory review or other proceedings."

Senate Ethics Committee Rule 5(a). Thus, according to the February 24 and June 2 letters, "the Ethics Committee has explicit authority to hold an immediate public hearing on the Burris matter."

The June 2 letter states that "New reports published last week indicate that the concerns about whether Senator Burris was sworn in as a Senator under false pretenses may be well founded."

The letter states:

According to an article in The New York Times (May 27, 2009), the Ethics Committee recently received the transcript of a wiretap conversation that took place on November 13, 2008 between Senator Burris and the brother of former Governor Rod Blagojevich.

According to the Times story, the transcript shows that Senator Burris "aggressively and openly pursued" the Senate appointment in the conversation with the Governor’s brother.

Further, the Times story states that in the phone call, Senator Burris "seemed almost in a crass negotiation with Mr. Blagojevich's brother - also his chief fundraiser - over how he could help the governor, win the appointment and not run in trouble over negative connotations that he might be trying to buy an appointment by fund-raising for him."

According to the Times article, Senator Burris was recorded as saying, "God knows, No. 1, I want to help Rod. No. 2, I also want to, you know, hope I get a consideration to get that appointment."

The June 2 letter further notes that in its February letter, Democracy 21 quoted an article in the Chicago Tribune (February 19, 2009) that stated that Senator Burris had provided contradictory accounts in three sworn statements:

A Jan. 5 affidavit in which he says he had no contact with Blagojevich aides "regarding my appointment to the United States Senate."

His Jan. 8 testimony to the House panel, in which he acknowledges only one conversation with a former Blagojevich aide, but not any talks of fundraising.

A Feb. 4 affidavit, signed after his appointment, in which he acknowledges contacts with five other Blagojevich insiders about the seat. He also said he refused a fundraising request because it would be a conflict of interest.

Later Burris publicly acknowledged trying unsuccessfully to raise campaign funds for the governor.

According to the June 2 letter from Democracy 21:

As we stated in our February letter, the circumstances surrounding Senator Burris's conflicting statements under oath, raise very serious questions about the integrity of the process which led the Senate to seat Senator Burris.

The interest of the public in getting to the bottom of what happened in the Burris matter and the institutional integrity of the Senate require a public examination of this matter.

The June 2 letter concludes:
We are aware that the Senate Ethics Committee has been conducting an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the appointment of Senator Burris.

Democracy 21 again urges the Committee to convene a prompt public hearing in which Senator Burris is called to testify under oath about his contradictory and conflicting statements under oath. We also urge the Committee to publicly report on the status of its investigation.