Roland Burris, the former Illinois Attorney General named by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill the U. S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, is a lobbyist who has contributed over $15,000 to the governor’s campaign while also receiving contracts from the state of Illinois.
The Friends of Blagojevich campaign organization Burris donated to is the entity federal prosecutors bugged for evidence that Blagojevich was putting Obama’s seat up for sale to the highest bidder. Transcripts from FBI listening devices and wiretaps suggest the governor repeatedly tried to leverage influence in return for contributions to his campaign committee.
Good government proponents voiced sharp criticism of the Burris appointment to Newsmax on Tuesday. Even though Burris has not been connected to any wrongdoing, they say the appointment could further exacerbate the state’s “pay-to-play” image of political corruption, given Burris’ status as both a Blagojevich donor and a state contractor.
According to Illinois State Board of Elections records, Burris’ donations to Friends of Blagojevich include:A second contribution on March 13, 2006, also from Burris & Lebed Consulting, Inc., in the amount of $1,500.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Burris and his companies have donated $15,296 to Blagojevich since 2002.
State records show that Burris & Lebed Consulting, a government-relations, media, and political consultancy firm, was placed on an special 2005 list of 19 Illinois companies to be favored by the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) due to minority ownership. Burris’ firm was awarded an IDOT contract valued at $300,000 to recruit firms for construction work, beginning Jan. 1, 2005.
The contract was awarded under IDOT’s Supportive Services Program, whose purpose is to “develop, conduct and administer minority business enterprise training and assistance programs specifically for the benefit of women and minority businesses.”
Burris & Lebed’s client roster includes telecommunications goliath Comcast, according to state records. Other clients reportedly include Commonwealth Edison, the Illinois Association of Mortgage Brokers, the Illinois Funeral Directors Association, and the Metropolitan Chicago Healthcare Council.
According to ProPublica Reporting Group, the firm lobbied both the state legislature and the governor’s office.
Burris is senior counsel for the law firm of Gonzalez, Saggio, and Harlan. He formerly worked with his son’s law firm, Burris, Wright, Slaughter & Tom, LLC, which had a contract doing bond business for the state.
Asked Tuesday if he had obtained government contracts, Burris replied: “Oh sure. We had a -- that is, the consulting firm had a small contract -- we had a contract with IDOT, where we certified minority businesses and we did a good job. And I think the law firm of which I am ‘of counsel,’ that was my son’s law firm, and we received some bond business and we were co-bond counsel as a minority firm, and we did a tremendous job.”
Burris said he did not know the specific value of those contracts.
Burris also is listed as a board member of the multi-billion dollar firm, The Inland Real Estate Group. The watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform has the following listing for Inland:
“The Inland Real Estate Group is a career patron of former Attorney General Jim Ryan (R), unsuccessful Attorney General Joseph Birkett (R), and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Roland Burris (D).
“From 1993 to 2002, the Inland Real Estate Group contributed $498,000 to candidates for Illinois statewide constitutional and legislative office, 92 percent of which was contributed to Republicans.”
Federal records indicate Burris also donated over $2,000 to the campaigns of Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden.
Burris and Blagojevich haven’t always been political allies. In the 2002 governor’s race, Blagojevich beat Burris in the Democratic primary. Burris later served on the incoming governor’s transition team.
Better government advocates strongly protested the Burris appointment Tuesday.
“Blagojevich's appointment of Burris, whose firm has held state contracts, illustrates his disconnect from the public's ire on pay to play politics in Illinois,” Cyndi Canary, the executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, told Newsmax. “More strikingly, by making an appointment that the Illinois secretary of state refuses to certify and the U.S. Senate refuses to seat, both Mr. Blagojevich and Mr. Burris show a disconnect from the sad political reality of this situation.”
Canary adds, “I don't think that Burris got this appointment because he was a contributor. I think he got it because he was one of very, very few who would accept an appointment from Illinois' tainted political leader.”
Robert Alt, senior legal fellow and deputy director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation, told Newsmax the Burris appointment would inevitably be seen as tainted.
“Ordinarily, gifts of $6,500 to a campaign by an individual seeking a subsequent appointment would be enough to raise suspicions of impropriety,” Alt stated in an e-mail. “But given Blagojevich’s alleged conduct, one only wonders whether he would sell the seat so cheaply.
“At this point,” Alt wrote, “no appointee of Blagojevich can be taken seriously -- a cloud of corruption hangs over the entire process. The fact that Burris and his company made significant campaign contributions to the disgraced governor is just the nail in this senatorial coffin.”
The Burris appointment may do more to shore up political support for embattled Blagojevich among Illinois’ African-American community than anything else. Illinois’ secretary of state must certify the appointment, and said on Tuesday that he will not do so. Also, Senate leaders have also pledged not to seat any Blagojevich appointee.
Blagojevich and Chief of Staff John Harris were arrested earlier this month for allegedly trying to barter or sell the Illinois U.S. Senate seat recently vacated by Obama.
“Gov. Blagojevich has taken us to a new low,” U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said at the time. “This conduct would make [Abraham] Lincoln roll over in his grave.”
Authorities say Blagojevich, 51, and Harris, 46, conspired to commit mail and wire fraud, and solicited bribes.
Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn voiced strong respect for Burris on Tuesday, but said he had made a mistake in accepting the appointment.
Regarding Blagojevich, Quinn said, “He has disgraced himself, he’s disgraced the people of Illinois, and he needs to leave office immediately.”