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Prosecutor says Sen. Burris won't face perjury charge
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- U.S. Sen. Roland Burris won't face a perjury charge over statements he made to state lawmakers investigating how he got his job, but the junior senator still faces the task of salvaging his political future and shaking the stigma of his link to the disgraced former governor who put him in office.
Sangamon County State's Attorney John Schmidt announced Friday that there was insufficient evidence to prove Burris lied to a state House impeachment committee investigating Gov. Rod Blagojevich's choice of Burris to fill President Obama's vacant Senate seat. The FBI had arrested Blagojevich three weeks earlier on an array of corruption charges, including one that he tried to auction off the Senate seat in exchange for political favors or cash.
Burris had promised a full accounting before the committee as a condition of his being seated in the Senate, where he's the only black member. While Schmidt decided a jury wouldn't call the senator's statements lies, he said they were "incomplete."
"I have never engaged in any pay-to-play, never perjured myself, and came to this seat in an honest and legal way," Burris said in a statement in response to Schmidt's announcement.
But even as the 71-year-old politician looks toward election to a full term in 2010, he has been shirked on Capitol Hill and still faces a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his conduct.
The prosecutor's announcement "probably stops the bleeding," but doesn't improve Burris' political stature, said Kent Redfield, a political scientist affiliated with the University of Illinois at Springfield.
"Public opinion has become so hard. It's no longer whether he crossed a legal line, but the way he conducted himself in dealing with the governor," Redfield said. "It links him to a chapter in Illinois politics that everyone wants to get beyond."
With Senate Democrats making it clear they won't support a Burris election bid, party members in Illinois are champing at the bit for a chance.
First-term Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Christopher Kennedy, a Chicago businessman and son of the late Robert F. Kennedy, are all considering wading in.
The ethics committee, which is reviewing the circumstances of Burris' appointment, can recommend punishment for wrongdoing among Senate members. That action can include censure -- a formal reprimand -- or even ejection.
The Senate hasn't voted to dismiss a sitting member since the Civil War era. Democrats need Burris' vote to stay close to a 60-vote majority which can end filibusters, and Redfield said it's possible the committee might prolong its inquiry until participants see the primary election results.
Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his No. 2, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, declined comment. Durbin earlier said Burris should resign.
A publicist for Blagojevich, who with five others faces a 19-count federal indictment alleging a wide-ranging "pay-to-play" conspiracy, did not respond to requests for comment. Blagojevich has denied wrongdoing.
Burris changed his story at least twice when asked to explain the appointment to the impeachment committee whose review ultimately led to Blagojevich's ouster from office. He initially submitted an affidavit that said he had only a brief conversation with Blagojevich before he was appointed Dec. 30.
Testifying before the panel Jan. 8, he added that he mentioned his interest in the seat to a longtime Blagojevich friend the previous summer. In a supplemental affidavit Feb. 14, he acknowledged that Blagojevich's brother, campaign finance chairman Robert Blagojevich, had called Burris three times last fall asking for fundraising help, and that Burris asked to be considered for the Senate.
Burris said he told Robert Blagojevich he couldn't host a fundraiser because it would look like he was trying to gain favor for the post.
A November conversation between the two secretly recorded by the FBI during its investigation of Blagojevich indicates Burris expressed interest in helping the governor, but balked at hosting a fundraiser because of appearances.
He suggests contributing money under the name of his attorney, Timothy Wright -- an illegal act that Burris later said was a slip of the tongue.
"I know I could give him a check," Burris says on the recording. "Myself."
Blagojevich has received contributions of $20,000 from Burris, Burris' former consulting firm, and the law firm with which he was associated, but his last was in June 2008. Burris explained away the comments on the recording as an attempt to "placate" the governor's fundraiser.
Burris has said he filed the later affidavit to share "several facts that I was not given the opportunity to make" because the questions came so quickly. But after the wiretap conversation was released, he said the questions posed were not specific enough and he had no obligation to volunteer information.
Schmidt, the prosecutor, seemed to agree in his letter to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, saying a perjury conviction relies not only on untruthful answers, but "very direct specific questions."
State Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, the committee's ranking Republican who demanded Burris' testimony, said Friday he disagreed with Schmidt. Burris continually changed statements he had made under oath in affidavits or testimony, he said.
"They're all contradictions to his previously sworn statements," Durkin said. "To me, it's a pretty strong case."
Burris was the first black elected to statewide office in Illinois, serving three terms as comptroller and one as attorney general starting in 1979. He lost three successive races for governor and a contest for Chicago mayor, starting in 1994.
Associated Press writers Stephen Ohlemacher and Henry C. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.