Monday, March 9, 2009

Springpatch’s prosecutors usually don’t bother watching the Statehouse Scene

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the state’s attorney’s office for Sangamon County, Ill., is pursuing the matter of whether or not Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., has committed acts that could qualify as perjury.

This is alien turf for the state’s attorney for the downstate Illinois county that includes the Illinois capital city of Springfield. They usually focus on local crime by defining local so narrowly that there is no difference between the Sangamon prosecutors and those in some other rural Illinois county.

STATE GOVERNMENT ISSUES are usually too big a picture for the local prosecutors.

It has traditionally been left to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Northern Illinois district to take on cases that would fall under the category of government corruption – which is why they focus on City Hall and the County Building, and usually only note the Statehouse activity when City Hall actions spill over into state government territory.

But Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt is taking it upon himself to do an investigation of Burris’ conduct in those weeks when he was dealing with now impeached Gov. Rod Blagojevich in trying to get the appointment to complete the Senate term of Barack Obama – which runs through next year.

Most recently, it has been reported that Schmidt would like for federal prosecutors who are trying to nail Blagojevich on federal charges to share some of their wiretap tapings so they can hear exactly what it was Burris said when he talked with Blagojevich’s brother back in December and January.

SCHMIDT WOULD LIKE to compare those tapings to the statements Burris made before an Illinois House panel that ultimately impeached Blagojevich, and the public comments he has made since then about his conduct.

There are those (myself included) who are not convinced that Burris’ conduct qualifies as perjury – which is not just a matter of saying something that someone else believes to be untrue.

There are specific conditions that would have to apply, and one of them may very well be that Burris literally answered the specific questions that were put to him by the Illinois House impeachment panel. The fact that it later came out that there was more contact than originally suspected between Burris and Blagojevich allies could be a case of the legislators not doing a careful enough job of questioning the one-time Illinois attorney general.

But that is what Schmidt wants to figure out, although it might not be easy. Federal officicals are going to be reluctant to share much in the way of their potential evidence against Blagojevich. They don’t really want those wiretap tapes becoming public knowledge until absolutely necessary.

FOR THE SAME reason that it could be a mistake for Blagojevich to write a book because prosecutors will read it and look for glitches in his story to catch him in, it also is likely that Blagojevich’s attorney when he does go to trial would take those tapes and look for every flaw in them so as to try to discredit the federal prosecution’s case.

So I’m not convinced Schmidt is ever going to get this wiretap evidence for his review. But I’m sure he will try to pursue the case, because he comes out of a county where many of the locals are entrenched Republicans.

He has little to lose, although some black state legislators already are taking to trying to discredit anything that his office eventually comes up with by saying it is merely the actions of a Republican prosecutor being willing to hassle a Democrat.

I must admit, a part of me also views his actions in that manner.

BECAUSE AS I noted before, the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office usually views the four square blocks located just to the west of downtown Springfield where the Statehouse and other state government buildings are located as being something of a separate district.

Of course, they are no different than the U.S. attorney for central Illinois, whose offices are located only about four blocks east of the Statehouse. That is what made it such a big deal back in 1997 when federal prosecutors in Springfield bothered to make a case out of Management Services of Illinois, a company that received significant Public Aid Department contracts while also providing campaign contributions and perks to various government officials.

It was the kind of case that usually would have only come about due to federal prosecutors in Chicago, who would have viewed much of the details that came out of that case (such as all the prime steaks and lobsters given to government officials) as being too petty to pursue.

It’s not an area the Springfield prosecutors venture into all that often. You’d think there was a Berlin Wall-type structure separating the two buildings, instead of just railroad tracks and a viaduct over Capitol Street.

HECK, THE COOK County state’s attorney has a better track record of trying to prosecute government corruption – and those of us who pay attention to the Chicago political scene know just how little the state’s attorney for Chicago ever bothers.

I don’t ever remember anything significant done by the Sangamon state’s attorney related to state government during the seven years I lived and worked in the capital city, and I haven’t heard much come from them since – until now. So excuse me if I’m a little skeptical of their actions and motivations these days.

A part of me thinks that nothing significant will ever come of the effort – other than to provide Republican partisans with subject material for the rants they are going to engage in for the next year until we finally reach the November 2010 elections.

You know what I mean – “Democrats, corrupt! Vote Republican.”

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: In today’s technological world of digital downloads, somebody still has (http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/burris/1463775,CST-NWS-invest06.article) use for tape recordings.

Only in Roland Burris’ wildest dreams was the matter of how he happened to get the U.S. Senate appointment (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-burris-report-07mar07,0,4598077.story) resolved with the documents he provided to prosecutors last week.

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