x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Bad to worse for Burris

It has been a long month for Roland Burris, the man who was tapped to fill Obama's Senate seat and who has had trouble keeping his name out of the headlines since.

WASHINGTON // It has been a long, strange month in office for Roland Burris, the man who was tapped by a now-impeached governor to fill Barack Obama's Senate seat and who has had trouble keeping his name out of the headlines since. In his short tenure as a US senator Mr Burris has become a fixture of the nightly news, not for anything he has accomplished in Congress, but because of his frequent press conferences which began as forums to justify his appointment and have since turned into venues where he passionately defends himself from allegations of scandal - sometimes with conflicting answers.

Mr Burris recently admitted to having more contact than he originally let on with the man who placed him in office, Rod Blagojevich, the combative former Illinois governor who is accused of trying to sell the Senate seat to the highest bidder. In a reversal from his previous sworn testimony that he had no conversations with the governor about the job, Mr Burris has now said that he had several contacts with Mr Blagojevich's surrogates and even tried unsuccessfully to raise money for him.

The constantly changing story, and the newly revealed contacts, have left many questioning not only what is the truth, but whether the senator lied under oath and should be removed from office. Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary, on Wednesday voiced concerns about the revelations, saying the people of Illinois "deserve to know ? the whole extent of the involvement". It has got so bad for Mr Burris that an Illinois congressman and fellow Democrat, Phil Hare, already called on him to step down. So too have a growing contingent of Republicans, political commentators and his hometown newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, which ran an editorial saying as much on Wednesday.

"Enough," said the editorial, just 35 days after Mr Burris was sworn in to office. "Roland Burris must resign." Mr Burris has heard such rumblings before. Many, including Democrats, initially rejected his selection and called for his exit from national politics even before his career began. But Mr Burris has proven to be a defiant character. A former Illinois attorney general, Mr Burris arrived on the national stage in December when Mr Blagojevich, who at the time was clinging to his post amid corruption charges, made one final defiant act as governor: he chose a replacement for Mr Obama. The choice of Mr Burris, 71, stunned the political world, but was just the beginning of a month-long political saga.

On the day that his would-be colleagues were sworn in, Mr Burris was blocked from entering the Senate chamber. Instead he held a press conference across the street from the Capitol Building, speaking to a throng of reporters who had gathered in a steady rain. "Members of the media, my name is Roland Burris, the junior senator from the State of Illinois," he proudly proclaimed. While his claim to be a senator was not true on that day, it did come to pass later in January when he was officially sworn in by his Senate peers. But scrutiny over Mr Burris has grown ever since.

In a sworn affidavit on Jan 5, Mr Burris said he had spoken to Mr Blagojevich only once, when the governor offered him the Senate job. But two days later, in testimony before an Illinois house committee considering the impeachment of Mr Blagojevich, Mr Burris admitted talking to "some friends" of the governor about the seat. Still, he said nothing untoward occurred. But last week, when the Chicago Sun Times uncovered another affidavit, from Feb 4, the story changed again. Now Mr Burris admitted to talking with five of Mr Blagojevich's surrogates, including with Mr Blagojevich's brother, Robert, who was head of the former governor's fund-raising operation. On Sunday Mr Burris told reporters that Rob Blagojevich asked him to raise money for the former governor. Mr Burris later explained that he solicited several friends for donations and was turned down. He said he eventually decided to no longer seek the contributions.

Through it all, Mr Burris has denied any wrongdoing, usually in the form of a press conference. "If I had done the things I've been accused of, I'd be too embarrassed to stand up here in front of you," Mr Burris told reporters in Chicago on Wednesday, appealing to the public to stop the "rush to judgement". "You know the real Roland. I've done nothing wrong and I have absolutely nothing to hide." However, state Republicans - as well as a growing number of Democrats - are not only calling for his resignation but also for an investigation into whether Mr Burris committed perjury.

"The hole just gets deeper and deeper," said the Chicago Tribune editorial. "And Burris keeps digging." sstanek@thenational.ae