CHICAGO - Embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich yesterday appointed former state Attorney General Roland Burris to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama.
State and national Democratic leaders, including Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, immediately said they would try to block the appointment, which comes three weeks after federal authorities arrested Blagojevich on criminal corruption charges that included allegations he tried to auction off the Senate seat for personal gain.
A veteran Illinois politician, Burris has also worked in the private sector on state bond transactions. He served as state controller from 1979 to 1991 and one term as attorney general. He founded a lobbying and consulting group, Burris & Lebed Consulting LLC, which has worked for state agencies as well as for investment banks working on state bond business.
Burris also has worked as an attorney at his son's minority-owned law firm, Burris, Wright, Slaughter & Tom LLC, which has served as both co-bond counsel and co-underwriter's counsel on state bond transactions. He has mounted three unsuccessful runs for governor, including one in 2002 when he lost to Blagojevich in the Democratic primary.
At a brief press conference yesterday, Blagojevich touted Burris as a man of integrity whose political experience and race should overcome the governor's scandals. Blagojevich said he was required by law to appoint a senator since state lawmakers have not moved forward with a bill to hold a special election to fill the vacant seat.
"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said. "The people of Illinois are entitled to have two U.S. senators. If I don't make this appointment, then the people of Illinois will be deprived."
But national and state Democratic leaders, while careful to praise Burris, repeated earlier statements that they would not seat anyone that Blagojevich appointed.
"[T]his is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat," said the U.S. Senate Democratic leadership in a statement issued even before Blagojevich made the official announcement.
"We again urge Gov. Blagojevich to not make this appointment. It is unfair to Mr. Burris, it is unfair to the people of Illinois and it will ultimately not stand," the statement said. "The governor must put the interests of the people of Illinois and all Americans first by stepping aside now and letting his successor appoint someone who we will seat."
At the same time, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said he would not certify Burris as the Senate replacement as required under Senate rules. And state Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican who acts as a spokesman for a House committee considering the governor's impeachment, said he would call for Burris to reject the appointment.
The scandal has cost the state financially. In advance of a $1.4 billion general obligation note issue that the state sold Dec. 16, Fitch Ratings downgraded the state's GO debt to AA-minus from AA, citing in part the political scandal.
That same week, Standard & Poor's put the state's AA long-term rating on negative CreditWatch, and Moody's Investors Service assigned an MIG-2 to the notes, down from MIG-1 rating on the state's last note issue in April.
Concerns over the scandal in part helped sour broker-dealer interest in the sale, with JPMorgan as the sole bidder on two of the three maturities.