Monday, February 16, 2009

Burris bashing is politically partisan

I have covered enough courtroom proceedings and government hearings where people were forced to testify as though they were in a courtroom to know that when someone is “under oath” on the witness stand, they have to answer the precise questions put to them.

They are not supposed to go off on tangents, nor are they allowed to elaborate by providing additional information that could give people a broader (some might say, more truthful) perspective about what truly happened.

IN FACT, THERE are cases where a person’s refusal to merely answer “yes” or “no” to a certain question can be seen as contempt of court. How dare the person on the witness stand think that he (or she) knows what is truly relevant for the public to know.

Those people are always instructed to just give the precise answer to the question put forth to them, and count on their attorney during cross-examination to ask the questions that allow for a more thorough perspective to come out.

I spew forth with that little ditty because I think it an interesting perspective to keep in mind when we hear Republican political people these days imply that Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., committed perjury of some type when he testified before the Illinois House panel that ultimately impeached former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Burris in recent days has submitted an affidavit that includes details about the amount of contact he had with Blagojevich allies during the time period earlier this year when Blagojevich was considering his “drop dead” gesture to the world of appointing a U.S. senator, despite facing a criminal complaint and the perception of the world that he was a piece of political dog poo with a really bad hairdo.

THE AFFIDAVIT GIVES hints that Blagojevich allies (including his brother) hinted to Burris that some future assistance with political fundraising would be expected, although it does not seem to imply anything specific, or an agreement on Burris’ part to provide such aid.

Strictly speaking, that differs from the testimony that Burris gave to the Illinois House panel that impeached Blagojevich, when Burris said he talked to some people about his interest in becoming a U.S. senator at an age when most people (except Strom Thurmond) are retiring.

“I talked to some friends about my desire to be appointed, yes,” Burris said back then.

But is his lack of detail about who those friends were truly worthy of the offense of perjury – which in theory could put him in a legal jam and cause him to have to resign the seat on Capitol Hill because he himself would be facing criminal charges.

I’M SURE A part of Gov. Pat Quinn would love to have the authority to pick his own version of a junior senator from Illinois. And I’m really sure the Republican officials who dream of being able to put one of their own in the post when the next statewide election comes around in 2010 are wetting their pants with glee.

As state Rep. Jim Durkin, R-Western Springs, told reporter-types in saying he wants Burris to resign the Senate seat immediately, “I can’t believe anything that’s coming from Mr. Burris, at this point.”

But who else benefits?

The problem with Durkin making such a claim is that it comes off as petty and absurd, in large part because Durkin was one of the people on that Illinois House impeachment panel.

HE WAS ONE of the people who questioned Burris. And it would appear that Burris did what a person is supposed to do when he is before a panel where he swears an oath to tell “the truth, so help him God.” He answered precisely what he was asked.

Quite frankly, the politically partisan accusations being made by Republican officials these days comes across more as petty whining that they didn’t think to ask the precise questions that would have generated this information at an earlier date.

Or, if it didn’t because Burris provided incorrect information, then it truly would be perjury. They’d have something legitimate against him. But they don’t.

One of the rules of being a prosecutor in a courtroom is that one does not ask a question if they don’t know the answer. In short, courtroom testimony is all about playing a game of “gotcha.” They didn’t “get” Burris back then, and now they’re upset enough to make these partisan charges.

OF COURSE, NO one really expects Burris to resign, or the Legislature to do anything to penalize him. I’m even skeptical that the Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s office (which historically has ignored state government activity, leaving it to federal prosecutors in Chicago to monitor) will do anything.

What all this rhetoric is truly about is trying to keep “the issue” of Blagojevich and the fact that he has a tie to Burris alive in the public mindset.

Most people don’t obsess over political minutia. There’s a good chance that if Blagojevich truly “went away” from public view that the bulk of people would forget about it. They’d probably keep some vague memory of a guy with a really funky hairdo who did something bad, but they wouldn’t care enough to keep the details in their memory.

That is exactly what the Republican Party in Illinois does not want to happen. Because the reality of the situation is that the likely Democratic candidates for Senate and Governor in the 2010 elections have the name recognition, political organization and finances to overcome whoever the Republicans put up in opposition.

THE GOP NEEDS to rely on the Illinois public being so worked up against the Democratic Party of this state that they’ll vote for anyone who chooses to align himself with the elephant logo.

So the answer is “yes,” Roland Burris did make a bit of a fool of himself on Sunday.

His press conference in Chicago where he made a statement, then tried to stand aside while attorneys provided non-denial denial-type answers to reporter-type questions made him look like he had something to hide.

It will make his cheap attempt at a sound bite (how else to describe the statement, “I conducted myself with honor”) sound less than honest.

BUT IF ILLINOIS is to truly advance beyond the Blagojevich era, it is going to have to get away from cheap allegations such as this one.

The Illinois Republican Party would best serve the people of this state by coming up with candidates who can give us solid reasons why they would better serve us. Relying on the partisan rhetoric about why “my opponent stinks” is just the type of nonsense that turns people off on Election Day.


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