The less charitable one, favored by most of the media, is that both Burris and Rob Blagojevich clearly understood that the issues of political support for the governor, and of Burris’ desire for the Senate seat were being discussed in tandem, and that the former could affect the latter. And Burris talked about using his law partner’s name to obscure the nature of the fundraising support he was giving Blago. All this contradicts Burris’ earlier assurances, including under oath, that he hadn’t spoken to the Blago camp about raising money.
But the narrow focus on the wording of the conversation obscures a larger issue. Ever since Burris was named to the seat by the governor — who by then had been charged with trying to sell the seat, among other crimes — the public line from both Burris and Blago was that, whatever you thought about the governor’s plight, Burris had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
As Rep. Bobby Rush put it at that remarkable press conference the three men held in late December: “[Burris] has not, in 40 years of public service, had one iota of taint on his record as a public servant.” And Burris himself, asked soon after whether anyone might have spoken to the governor about the appointment on his behalf, answered: “I have no knowledge of that. And — and if they did, there was certainly no pay-to-play involved, because I don’t have no money.” It was only thanks to assurances like those that Harry Reid ultimately agreed to have Burris seated — bucking the widespread initial reaction that anyone Blago appointed under the circumstances was by definition tainted.
Explicit pay-to-play aside, we’ve known for a while now that the idea that Burris is squeaky clean — that is, that he wasn’t making an overt pitch for the seat at the same time that he trying to help Blago politically — is a fiction. But the transcript of the call makes clear just how drastically that version of events obscured the reality.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Burris deserves to be tarred with the same pay-to-play brush as Blago — and it’s noticeable that, as far as we can tell, nothing in the transcript directly contradicts anything Buris had said before.
But there are shades of gray here. The call may not show Burris making his fundraising support contingent on getting anything in return. But it definitely paints a portrait of a relationship between Burris and the governor’s camp that was a lot more intimate and involved than anyone had previously let on.
It’ll be up to the Senate Ethics committee to decide what consequences, if any, should come from that. But it’s worth keeping that baseline in mind as we consider what the transcript means.