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The word weasel

A tainted Democratic senator refreshes his memory

Until this past weekend, Roland Burris was known merely as a tainted U.S. Senate appointee, tapped for his seat by a tainted Democratic governor. But, in the wake of fresh revelations, we need to urgently update the Burris profile.

Now he's a tainted appointee who, prior to his appointment, engaged in potentially tainted conversations with the brother of the tainted Democratic governor; worse yet, he engaged in a coverup while under oath last month, declining to mention his contacts with the gubernatorial brother. Burris' clam-up occurred during the Illinois impeachment proceedings that were directed against the tainted governor who appointed him.

Got all that? What a tangled web he weaves.

It has long seemed obvious, at least to me, that voters should have the right to choose a new senator in the event that a vacancy occurs in their state. That scenario seems far more democratic than simply having a governor designate a winner. And that scenario seemed to be even more of a no-brainer in light of recent events - notably in New York (where the accidental Democratic governor, elevated to the job thanks to Client 9's cavortings the call girl, wound up ticking off the entire Kennedy family), and in Illinois (where Rod Blagojevich, even while his head was being fitted for the noose, gave us Burris).

It appeared for awhile that the Senate Democrats could live with Burris, albeit grudgingly. He was underwhelming on the merits and he was stamped with the Blago seal of approval, but his hands appeared to be clean. Indeed, before he came to Washington, he had submitted an affidavit stating that "there was not any contact" between him and any of Blago's emissaries concerning the vacant Senate seat that he had so actively sought.

Given the fact that Blago was under a legal cloud for allegedly trying to sell that seat, the Senate Democratic leaders needed to be reassured that Burris got it fair and square. The affidavit presumably helped. But they had one other request for Burris. Before agreeing to seat him, they wanted him to testify under oath to the Illinois impeachment committee. He did so, on Jan. 8.

And this is where the new revelations of deception kick in.

Burris is known for his egomania; he has already purchased a mausoleum that will boast of his being the first black ever elected to statewide office (Illinois comptroller, 1978). Perhaps he should chisel this phrase as well: A weasel with words.

Here's the fun part. At the Jan. 8 hearing, a Republican lawmaker asked Burris: "Did you talk to any members of the governor's staff, or anyone closely related to the governor, including family members, or any lobbyists connected with him, including, let me throw out some names - John Harris, (brother) Rob Blagojevich, Doug Scofield, Bob Greenleaf, Lon Monk, John Wyma? Did you talk to anybody...associated with the governor about your desire to seek the appointment prior to the governor's arrest (on Dec. 9)?"

Burris' lawyer spoke next: "Give us a moment." He and Burris briefly conferred. Then Burris crafted this key line:

"I talked to some friends about my desire to be appointed, yes."

The Republican lawmaker followed up: "Did you speak to anybody who was on the governor's staff prior to the governor's arrest, or anybody, any of those individuals or anybody who is closely related to the governor?" Burris replied by citing only one name - Lon Monk, a former Blago chief of staff.

Soon thereafter, another Republican lawmaker made another try. He asked Burris, "You said that you had visited 'friends'...Could you give me the names of those friends?"

Burris, in response (and this is my favorite quote): "I mean, I don't know who you want as my friends that I consider as persons."

OK. Now let's flash forward to Valentine's Day. A Chicago newspaper disclosed over the weekend that Burris had filed a new state affidavit (one week earlier, with no public notice), offering a very different version of events. In this version, Burris suddenly remembered that, oh yeah, he had conferred with Rob Blagojevich, the governor's brother. And that they had conferred three different times. And that Rob had tried to hit him up for money.

Burris in recent days has been asked about the glaring discrepancies between what he's saying now and what he said under oath last month. He insists that the two versions are consistent; given the fact that he might have opened himself up to a perjury rap, it's natural that he would so insist.

He was asked at a Sunday press conference to explain why, at the Jan. 8 hearing, he didn't simply 'fess up to his meetings with Blago's brother, when the name of Blago's brother was specifically cited as one of his possible contacts. Burris replied to the reporters, "The 'yes' was for the names...The 'yes' was for all those names."
Yeah, right. Scroll back and look at his various non-responses. He was clearly laboring hard to avoid any mention of brother Rob (as well as the other five Blago associates that he has now 'fessed up to conferring with). Or perhaps, to use the Clintonian metric, it all depends on what the definition of friends is.

On Sunday, Burris also insisted that he simply didn't have an opportunity to bring up brother Rob "in the time allotted." That's a good one. I just checked my watch, and it takes only four seconds to utter the sentence, "Yes, I did meet on several occasions with Rob Blagojevich."

In Senate parlance, it's curious why Burris decided to revise and extend his sworn remarks by refreshing his memory in a new affidavit. He insists that it was strictly a voluntary move on his part - a desire, he says, to be more "complete" than he was on Jan. 8. Perhaps. Or maybe he suspects that the FBI, during its probe of the governor, captured him on tape with the gubernatorial brother - and therefore he wanted to come clean on his own, in advance of any such revelation.

By the way, Burris' latest fall-back defense was that he never actually tried to raise any money last fall for the governor, even after the brother of Blago hit him up for money. But he shelved that defense late last night when he told reporters that, oh yeah, he did remember trying to raise money last fall for the governor. Drip, drip, drip. Turns out, he endeavored to put together a fund-raiser, but his effort failed because he couldn't find enough people willing to be Blago donors.

Bottom line? The Burris saga lives on, with perhaps a perjury probe back home, and the Senate Democrats are squirming again. You have to love this ringing endorsement of Burris from Harry Reid's spokesman: "Clearly, it would have been better if Senator Burris had disclosed this (brother Rob) information when he first testified." In the wake of this latest embarrassment, the only ray of light for the Democrats is that it will surely be easier to recruit someone to contest Burris in a party primary during the runup to the 2010 election.

As for the Republicans in Washington, they won't be agitating for Burris' resignation. Considering all the fresh video material that Burris has provided, they undoubtedly hope that he will stay in office and stand for election next year. In their bid to deny the Democrats 60 Senate seats, they need Burris.

After all, in the annals of word-weasling, what other 2010 Democratic candidate will be able to compete with "I don't know who you want as my friends that I consider as persons"? That's probably too long for Burris' mausoleum wall, but it would fit quite nicely into a Republican attack ad.