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Author John Howard Griffin, who posed as a Black man for his seminal book on southern racism,"Black Like Me," was born in 1920.

Burris in Hot Water

POSTED: February 18, 2009, 6:30 am

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It seems as though former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is the “gift that keeps on giving” as the man he appointed to replace Barack Obama in the Senate now appears to be sinking faster than a rock in Lake Michigan.

In case you have been in a coma or on some distant planet, let’s rewind to the beginning of this comedy of errors and corruption. It all started to unravel when Blagojevich, then the democratically elected Democratic governor of Illinois, woke up to find federal agents at his door with an arrest warrant. Once the governor was taken into custody the U.S. Attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald, announced that criminal charges were being brought against Blagojevich for among several things, engaging in a “play to pay” racket. One of the more startling allegations being that the governor attempted to “sell” the Senate seat previously held by Mr. Obama.

Along the way, it was revealed that one of the individuals referenced on surveillance audio tape was Rep. Jesse Jackson (D-IL), himself at the time one of the leading prospects to replace Obama in the Senate. The circumstances of Jackson’s name surfacing on tape was a group of unidentified men who claimed they were representatives of Jackson and not so subtly implied that Blagojevich would be rewarded by picking Jackson for the Senate seat. Rep. Jackson vehemently denied any involvement and the U.S. Attorney made clear the Congressman was not a target of the investigation. Still, the taint from the former governor was enough to knock Rep. Jackson from contention for the seat. With Jackson out of the picture, Blagojevich was desperate to maintain control over the selection process as Democrats and Republicans were calling for his resignation.

Which leads us to Roland Burris. The former state Comptroller and Attorney General, two posts in which Burris was the first Black to serve, was plucked from political obscurity by a cunning Blagojevich. In a move that was sheer brilliance, Blagojevich bested Republican critics and some Democrats by selecting someone to fill the Obama seat whose experience and credentials could not be questioned. Enter Roland Burris. The choice of Burris angered Democrats on the Hill who were seeking to keep the seat in the party’s hands but also dismiss any notion that the governor’s problems were the product of a corrupt political party. Once Burris was named by Blagojevich to fill the Senate vacancy, Democratic leadership in the Senate placed conditions on his appointment. Most notably the party, through Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), conditioned its support on Burris having “clean hands” and no connection to any attempt by Blagojevich to extort monies in exchange for the seat. Roland Burris testified under oath that he had no contact with Blagojevich and did not provide any favors in exchange for the governor’s support. With that, the matter appeared resolved and after a minor hitch, Roland Burris was sworn-in as the junior Senator from Illinois.

New revelations now put Burris’ tenure in the Senate in jeopardy. It seems Mr. Burris was not forthcoming in his testimony under oath in an affidavit during Rod Blagojevich’s impeachment trial. Over the last two days, Burris has acknowledged having conversations with five people in the former governor’s circle and that he sought to raise campaign funds for Blagojevich, at the request of the governor’s brother, at the same time he was seeking to be appointed to the Senate. His admission has prompted Illinois Republicans to call for an investigation and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to express support for an ethics inquiry. His hometown Chicago Tribune has called for his resignation in an editorial, writing on February 17, “The benefit of the doubt had already been stretched thin and taut by the time Roland Burris offered his third version of the events leading to his appointment to the U.S. Senate. It finally snapped like a rubber band, popping him on that long Pinocchio nose of his, when he came out with version four.”

For his part, Burris is claiming that when he was questioned he was not specifically asked about the contacts, and would have divulged the conversations with the governor’s contacts. It is a flimsy defense in light of some glaring contradictions on his part. His testimony he provided the Illinois impeachment panel on January 8 contradicts an affidavit he filed three days earlier. One month later, he filed a “clarification” that detailed the contacts he did not mention on the stand. Burris later admitted that the governor’s brother tried to get him to come up with some cash for Blagojevich’s campaign.

The drama around Roland Burris resurfaces just as President Obama scores a major accomplishment with the signing of the economic stimulus legislation. Though exonerated of any involvement in the alleged activity of Rod Blagojevich by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald at the time of the former governor’s arrest, the episode has been an embarrassment to Mr. Obama as he seeks to overcome negative perceptions of his home state’s politics. Not to be content with dragging down one member of Congress, Blagojevich also coaxed Rep. Bobby Rush and Rep. Danny Davis into supporting Burris with both men claiming the seat should be occupied by someone who is Black. Significant political capital was expended, including support from the Congressional Black Caucus, to support someone who was highly regarded in the Black community but who now appears to have misled Illinois investigators while under oath.

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