Judge approves release of Burris conversation

May 26, 2009 4:03:22 PM PDT
The U.S. Senate Ethics Committee can listen to a phone call between former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's brother and U.S. Sen. Roland Burris that the FBI secretly taped about three weeks before the governor was arrested, a federal judge said Tuesday. The conversation between Burris and Robert Blagojevich, then chairman of the Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign fundraising committee, occurred Nov. 13. The then-governor was arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges that included scheming to sell President Barack Obama's former U.S. Senate seat.

Burris has been under intense scrutiny since he was appointed by the now-ousted governor at the end of December, and for changing his story multiple times about whether he promised anything in exchange for it. The ethics committee began a preliminary investigation into how Burris got his job, and the Sangamon County State's Attorney was asked to determine whether perjury charges were warranted.

"You can inform the Senate preliminarily that this material will be provided to the Senate shortly," U.S. District Chief Judge James F. Holderman told federal prosecutors who had asked permission to release the wiretap material to the ethics panel.

Neither Robert Blagojevich's attorney, Michael Ettinger, nor Burris' lawyer, Timothy Wright, objected to the government's motion to give the tapes to the Senate.

"I think that the senator has told the truth every time," Wright said. "And we think he has been perfectly consistent." In a statement, Burris said he hoped the tapes will also be released to the public.

"These transcripts verify the accuracy of my previous public statements on this matter and demonstrate once and for all there was no 'pay to play' involved in my appointment to the United States Senate or perjury in my recounting of that process," Burris said.

His lawyer, Wright, said that on the tape, Robert Blagojevich asks Burris to hold a fundraiser for the Friends of Blagojevich and Burris says "no" to the idea.

Burris then says in response to a question from the governor's brother that he would consider writing a personal check to the campaign fund, but he ultimately decided against giving the check because he was a Senate contender, Wright said. There was never an amount specified on or off the tape as to what the amount of such a check should be, he added.

The former governor, ousted by lawmakers in January, was indicted in April on charges of scheming to trade or sell Obama's old seat and using the political muscle of his office to squeeze people for campaign money. Also indicted were his brother Robert, former campaign fund chairman Christopher G. Kelly, former Blagojevich chiefs of staff John Harris and Alonzo Monk and Springfield multimillionaire William Cellini.

All have pleaded not guilty, although Harris's attorney says he is cooperating with federal prosecutors and Monk is believed to be as well.

Burris' Senate appointment followed at least two phone conversations between Burris and Robert Blagojevich.

Burris told the Illinois House impeachment committee that he had promised nothing to Blagojevich in exchange for the seat but has changed his version of exactly what was said several times and questions have been raised about what happened.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., agreed to seat Burris if he gave a full accounting of his Blagojevich contacts to the Illinois House committee that was considering impeachment of the governor.

Burris gave the committee an affidavit denying any discussion with Blagojevich's aides before being offered the seat. But when he testified, Burris acknowledged talking to one of Blagojevich's friends and informal advisers about it.

Burris did not admit talking to anyone else and said he could not recall any other contacts.

Then, after he was sworn in, Burris released another affidavit acknowledging that he had talked to several Blagojevich advisers about his interest in the seat. Soon after talking to reporters, he said he had been asked to help raise campaign money for the governor and tried to find people willing to donate but failed.

Then he stopped answering questions, letting others speak on his behalf.

Durbin declined to say what might be on the tape.

"Let's wait until the transcript is released, the tape is released. If there's a problem, let Sen. Burris address it," Durbin told an unrelated news conference.

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