Hamilton, Madison, and Jay

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Senate Ethics Committee Opens Probe on Senator Burris

Roland Burris was just sworn in thirty-four days ago to take the seat left vacant by the election of Barack Obama as president. It was a roller-coaster ride for him as he fought off the accusations that he may have paid for the seat he was appointed to, and in fighting off the taint of Rod Blagojevich. See, former governor Blagojevich thumbed his nose at the Democrats in the Senate who sent him a letter telling him not to make the appointment. (For a break-down of the whole fiasco, for those who might have forgotten, go here and read Jane Hamsher's explanation.)

But something funny happened on the way to his Senate seat. When the allegations surfaced that he might have done some quid pro quo for Mr. Blagojevich's brother, Mr. Burris denied any such thing. Then the transcript of his Illinois House of Representatives testimony surfaced which showed he purposefully split hairs over what he did for Mr. Blagojevich and his brother. Before the day was over yesterday, Mr. Burris dropped the earlier denials, and admitted he did do fund-raising for Mr. Blagojevich's brother.

Now it is being revealed that the Senate Ethics Committee has opened a probe into the Burris affair:

The Senate Ethics Committee has opened a preliminary inquiry into Sen. Roland Burris’s (D-Ill.) conflicting testimony on the circumstances surrounding his appointment while Senate Democrats and Republicans take a wait-and-see approach to the potential impact on the 2010 election.

A spokeswoman for Ethics Committee Chairwoman Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) confirmed the investigation Tuesday night.

“Whenever allegations of improper conduct are brought to the attention of the Senate Ethics Committee, we open a preliminary inquiry,” she said.

Senate Ethics Committee inquiries are not necessarily unusual — the panel opened 10 preliminary inquiries in 2008, four of which were carried over from 2007. While actions could extend to expulsion, the committee often opts for less severe punishments such as letters of admonition, as it did last year in the case of former Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who was charged with soliciting sex in a Minneapolis airport bathroom.

Burris’s admission that he tried to raise money for former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had both parties taking swipes at the viability of a 2010 Burris candidacy, with one prominent Democratic strategist suggesting the revelations will help the party recruit a stronger candidate for the seat. Party leaders had initially planned to support Burris, the strategist said, but “a lot has changed.”

“We know the Republicans are salivating, but I’m not sure they should be,” said the Democratic source. “This is far from the ‘Apocalypse of the Illinois Senate seat.”

A senior GOP aide dismissed that as “pure spin,” noting that Burris stridently insisted on being seated and has resisted any efforts to remove him ever since. And as investigations become possible at the state and federal levels, the aide said Burris will inevitably become more weakened.

“He’s not going anywhere, at least voluntarily, and any investigation won’t happen overnight,” said the GOP aide. “You can’t just remove a U.S. senator like they impeached the governor. This will take a while, and if anything, the Democratic infighting will further the divide over him. Look at what happened the first time he tried to enter the Senate.”

He may not be ousted from his seat through the Ethics probe, but he could be removed if it is found out he did commit perjury under oath before the Illinois House of Representatives. That could end his career in the Senate, and open up that seat for the GOP. It will not be easy. As the Hill reports, there are Democrats lining up to challenge him in the 2010 primaries:

Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias has made no secret of his ambition to reach the Senate and has been to Washington to interview campaign staff, although he has made no formal announcement.

And Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky has refused to rule out a run of her own.

And yes, a couple of GOP contenders have voiced their desire to make a Senate run, and plan on targeting Mr. Burris:

Two prominent Republicans are also weighing getting into the race. GOP Reps. Mark Kirk and Peter Roskam are proven fundraisers who come from a more centrist wing of the party, critical for any Republican to win statewide in Illinois.

Will the Ethics probe be the only investigation Mr. Burris is facing? No, he faces a state probe, as well:

Besides the Ethics Committee announcement, Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt told The Hill he is reviewing documents sent to him Tuesday by state House Speaker Michael Madigan about possible inconsistencies in Burris’s explanations surrounding his Senate appointment. Burris was appointed to the Senate by Blagojevich, who was impeached on corruption charges two weeks ago.

Madigan sent Schmidt a transcript of Burris’s Jan. 8 testimony before a state House investigative committee, as well as affidavits by Burris on Jan. 5 and Feb. 4. Burris acknowledged over the weekend that he had more extensive contacts with Blagojevich before his appointment that he had previously admitted, including offering fundraising help.

Mr. Burris is in it deep. He is going to face scrutiny that no elected official would want to deal with. Not only must he deal with Senator Boxer and the Senate Ethics Committee, but the investigations from a state attorney. Believe me when I say that if Mr. Burris has committed a crime, he will be brought up on charges, and he will face prosecution. So while the move by Governor Blagojevich was enough to befuddle Harry Reid and the Democrats in the Senate, this former headache may have tossed himself under the bus.



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