So what to make of the transcript of that phone call, released earlier this week, between Roland Burris and Robert Blagojevich, brother of the disgraced former Illinois governor?
The crux of the conversation — which took place in mid November, before the then-governor’s arrest — involves Burris explaining to Blagojevich frere that he’d very much like to hold a fundraiser for the governor and otherwise help him politically, and is also interested in being named to Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat. But he’s afraid of how things would look if he raised money for Blago, then got the Senate appointment. So he mulls organizing a fundraiser “in the name of” his law partner, for appearances’ sake.Here’s the key excerpt from the transcript:
BURRIS: And I’m trying to figure out how to deal with this and still be in the consideration for the appointment.
BLAGOJEVICH: I hear ya. No, I hear ya.
BURRIS: And, and if I do that I guarantee you that, that will get out and people said, oh, Burris is doing a fundraiser and, and then Rod and I both gonna catch hell,
BLAGOJEVICH: Mm hm.
BURRIS: And if I do get appointed that means I bought it.
BURRIS: If I don’t get appointed then my people who I’m trying to raise money from are gonna look at me, yeah, what, what’s that all about Roland. I mean, so, Rob, I’m in a, I’m in a, a dilemma right now wanting to help the governor.
BURRIS: I mean I, you know I, I have been with him on all of the, all the issues and I’m now trying to figure out what the hell the best thing to do.
BURRIS: I know I could give him a check.
BURRIS: And, and my law partner we were gonna try to do something at the law firm. I might be able to do this in the name of Tim Wright.
BLAGOJEVICH: Mm hm.
BURRIS: Okay, ’cause Tim is not looking for an appointment, okay.
In terms of the narrow conversation at hand, there are two ways to look at it: the more charitable one, which Burris himself has been putting out in recent days, is that the conversation shows Burris never made any explicit quid pro quo with Team Blago. Doing things like asking one’s law partner to hold a fundraiser for an elected official to whom you want to show support is just how politics works. And the fundraiser never happened.
The less charitable one, favored by most of the media, is that both Burris and Rob Blagojevich clearly understood that the issues of political support for the governor, and of Burris’ desire for the Senate seat were being discussed in tandem, and that the former could affect the latter. And Burris talked about using his law partner’s name to obscure the nature of the fundraising support he was giving Blago. All this contradicts Burris’ earlier assurances, including under oath, that he hadn’t spoken to the Blago camp about raising money.
But the narrow focus on the wording of the conversation obscures a larger issue. Ever since Burris was named to the seat by the governor — who by then had been charged with trying to sell the seat, among other crimes — the public line from both Burris and Blago was that, whatever you thought about the governor’s plight, Burris had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
As Rep. Bobby Rush put it at that remarkable press conference the three men held in late December: “[Burris] has not, in 40 years of public service, had one iota of taint on his record as a public servant.” And Burris himself, asked soon after whether anyone might have spoken to the governor about the appointment on his behalf, answered: “I have no knowledge of that. And — and if they did, there was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don’t have no money.” It was only thanks to assurances like those that Harry Reid ultimately agreed to have Burris seated — bucking the widespread initial reaction that anyone Blago appointed under the circumstances was by definition tainted.
Explicit pay-to-play aside, we’ve known for a while now that the idea that Burris is squeaky clean — that is, that he wasn’t making an overt pitch for the seat at the same time that he trying to help Blago politically — is a fiction. But the transcript of the call makes clear just how drastically that version of events obscured the reality.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Burris deserves to be tarred with the same pay-to-play brush as Blago — and it’s noticeable that, as far as we can tell, nothing in the transcript directly contradicts anything Buris had said before.
But there are shades of gray here. The call may not show Burris making his fundraising support contingent on getting anything in return. But it definitely paints a portrait of a relationship between Burris and the governor’s camp that was a lot more intimate and involved than anyone had previously let on.
It’ll be up to the Senate Ethics committee to decide what consequences, if any, should come from that. But it’s worth keeping that baseline in mind as we consider what the transcript means.