Burris tape stokes skepticism in Illinois

New recording raises fresh doubts about whether the senator used pay-for-play politics to get his seat.

By , Correspondent

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    Senator Roland Burris (D-Ill.) spoke to the media following a tour of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in Urbana, Illinois on Wednesday, May 27, 2009.
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Sen. Roland Burris's two-day tour through Illinois this week has become, at least partly, a damage-limitation exercise. Many state residents, it turns out, have new questions about how he got his seat.

On Wednesday, a federal judge unsealed a Nov. 13, 2008, recorded telephone exchange between Senator Burris and Robert Blagojevich, chief fundraiser for this brother, Rod, who was then governor of Illinois.

Rod Blagojevich has since been arrested on corruption charges, which included trying to sell the vacant Senate seat that once belonged to President Obama, and impeached. A US Senate ethics panel is investigating whether Senator Burris won that seat through pay-for-play politics.

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During his tour of central Illinois to speak with local politicians and business leaders, Burris has been asked to defend himself. He has said the recording exonerates him. By the measure of comments made by a handful of Chicagoans Thursday, however, his constituents are skeptical.

The tape made Joyce Boyy of suburban Oak Park, Ill., “more convinced that everything wasn’t done correctly.”

She says her disappointment comes not from what she heard in the recording, but from Burris “steadfastly saying it was not pay-for play, [even though] it sounds like it.”

The FBI wire transcript features Robert Blagojevich, who is also facing corruption charges, urging Burris to contribute to the governor’s campaign fund. Burris repeatedly tells Blagojevich he wants “consideration for the appointment” and proposes to make a contribution in the name of Timothy Wright, his attorney, to avoid the payment from looking like he was “trying to buy an appointment.”

For many, what was said on tape is less incriminating than the unusual circumstances surrounding Burris’s ascendancy to the Senate. He had left public office in 1995 when he lost his state attorney general post.

“I think the whole situation is sketchy to begin with,” says Matt Corcoran, standing on Ohio Street during his lunch hour Thursday. “Anyone [who] was going to be appointed by Blagojevich has the aura of being in the shadows. It’s going to be amplified more.”

Indeed, Colleen Daughton says she doesn't believe the tape proves Burris engaged in pay for play, "but he perjured himself, he definitely omitted the truth.” She is referring to Burris's testimony before an Illinois House impeachment panel in December, when he said he did not make contact with the governor or any of his associates regarding the appointment.

Ms. Daughton, who was on a short break outside her office building downtown, says the tape contributes to a general fatigue Illinoisans are feeling regarding corruption in their state. In the latest example, federal prosecutors announced corruption charges against a Chicago alderman Thursday. “People are starting to become numb; it’s unfortunate,” she says.

For some here, Burris was destined for intense scrutiny. It did not make sense that his was the only name up for consideration in December, says Keith Lang, dressed in a brown crew-neck sweater and a woolen cap. “In the back of your head you knew something was not right," he adds.

As for Burris’s chances in an election next year, John Moore, who was walking to lunch with Mr. Lang, has this advice: “Don’t try to run."

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