Burris attorney: Senate seat denial ‘against the law of this land’

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Now that the U.S. Senate has refused to seat him, Roland Burris plans to take the matter up in court.

Now that the U.S. Senate has refused to seat him, Roland Burris plans to take the matter up in court.

Tuesday after Burris was turned away from the Senate floor by Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson for what she said was a lack of certification, Timothy Wright III, an attorney for Burris, said his client will continue to fight for the Senate to honor what Wright said is a legal appointment.

“Our credentials were rejected by the Secretary of the Senate. We were not allowed to proceed to the floor for purposes of taking oath, all of which we think was improperly done and is against the law of this land,” Wright said. “We will consider our options, and we will certainly let you know what our decisions will be soon.”

What Burris lacked when he went to the nation’s Capitol Tuesday was the signature of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White on a certification form. Senate rules require that an incoming senator’s selection be certified by the Secretary of State for his home state.

White said he would not sign the form because federal authorities have accused Gov. Rod Blagojevich of trying to sell the seat to the highest bidder, which, he said, makes anyone appointed tainted.

The governor appointed Burris to the seat last week.

“Legally a candidate cannot be tainted,” Burris said.

Friday, Lawrence Perlman and John Ruff, attorneys for Burris, filed a motion with the Illinois Supreme Court to force White to certify him.

At press time, the Supreme Court had not ruled on the motion.

But through it all Burris said both he and White remain good friends.

“I just recently spoke to him, and we are still good friends,” said Burris.

Tuesday’s outcome came as no surprise to Burris who told the Defender last week that if turned away, he would pursue the matter in court.

“This is a legal appointment by the governor of Illinois who has the constitutional authority to make the appointment,” he said.

Blagojevich asserted his gubernatorial responsibility to make the Senate appointment when he first appointed Burris.

He reiterated it Tuesday after Burris’ rejection in Washington.

“The people of Illinois are entitled to be represented by two senators in the United States Senate,” Blagojevich said in a statement. “As governor, it is my duty and obligation to appoint a senator when there is a vacancy. I have done that by appointing Roland Burris, a good and decent man with a long history of public service in Illinois. Any allegations against me should not be held against him and especially not the people of Illinois.”

Burris said he fully expects to eventually be allowed to take his seat on the Senate floor. Once he does, he will be the only Black U.S. Senator, succeeding President-elect Barack Obama who was elected the nation’s first Black president in November.

The way Burris was surrounded by a mob of reporters Tuesday rivaled movie star coverage. It’s a far cry from two months ago when few people outside of Illinois had ever heard of him. That all changed with the Senate appointment.

His popularity is not due to his historic 1978 victory, when he became the first Black elected to a statewide office as comptroller. Instead, his national notoriety is a result of his Senate appointment made by a governor arrested Dec. 9 on corruption charges outlined in a 76-page criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney.

Burris, 71, now has until 2010 to regain voter confidence if he plans to run for a full six-year Senate term. He said he plans to reintroduce himself to voters who may have forgotten about him or are too young to remember his political legacy.

“I know I will need to reach out to voters to let them see Roland Burris is still Roland Burris, a dedicated and committed public servant,” he said.

Shortly after the governor’s arrest, Burris told the Defender he was still interested in the Senate seat but would not accept it if appointed by Blagojevich.

“I had not done enough research on the issue at the time,” Burris said, explaining his change of heart. “That’s why I said I would not accept an appointment from the governor,” Burris said. “After the position was offered to me, I got a lot of feedback from people who said I should accept the appointment. So after careful consideration, I decided to accept the seat.”

According to Burris, he was first approached about the Senate seat by the governor’s office on Dec. 26. Aides told him that Blagojevich would call him Dec. 28 to get his answer, which he did. Once he accepted the appointment the pair discussed when and how to make the announcement.

Some critics have said Burris was picked for the seat to deflect attention away from the governor’s legal problems.

“I think the governor’s back was to the wall and he saw this as a way out,” Burris said.

But had he not accepted the seat, Burris said he was afraid the nearly 13 million Illinois residents would be shortchanged in the U.S. Senate, having only one senator. Democrat Dick Durbin is the senior U.S. Senator from Illinois.

“My interest in the Senate seat was about helping the people of Illinois who are my first love,” Burris said. “My whole life has been about public service.”

Indeed, his political career includes three consecutive terms as comptroller, from 1978 to 1990, and four years as attorney general, from 1991 to 1995. He also unsuccessfully ran for U.S. Senate in 1984 against Paul Simon and for mayor of Chicago in 1995 against Richard M. Daley. He ran for governor three times–in 1994, 1998 and 2002–but never made it past the primary.

“My experience will be beneficial to the U.S. Senate,” Burris said. “I have been preparing myself for this position while serving as state comptroller and attorney general.”

But since his last election, Burris has kept a relatively low political profile while working as a senior counsel at the Chicago law firm Gonzalez, Saggio and Harlan LLC and as CEO of Burris & Lebed Consulting, a downtown political consulting firm he founded in 2002. He now plans to divest himself from both businesses so he can concentrate solely on his new job.

“One of my first orders of business as senator is to help pass an infrastructure bill that would create jobs in Illinois,” he said. “And affordable health care and education are also top priorities of mine.”

In Chicago and especially on the South Side where he lives, Burris has remained a mainstay within the Black community.

He enjoys eating healthy although he admits from time to time he can be found at Army & Lou’s, a soul food restaurant, eating grits. He also likes to dine at Captain Hard Times, another South Side soul food restaurant.

When he is not working, he enjoys reading historical books and watching sports on TV. Among the many activities he volunteers for is the Chicago 2016 Olympic Committee.

A resident of the Chatham community for over 30 years, Burris bought his home in the 1970s from legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.

On October 24, 2008, Burris and five others were the first people to be named “Distinguished Alumni of Centralia High School” in downstate Centralia where he graduated in 1955. He was born and raised in Centralia and attended Southern Illinois University in Carbondale where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. As an exchange student, he studied International Law at the University of Hamburg in Germany before earning his law degree in 1963 from the Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C.

His corporate experience is as long and distinguished as his political career. After graduating from law school, he became the first Black examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for the U.S. Treasury Department. From 1964 to 1973, he worked as a tax accountant and vice president for Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company (now Bank of America). While there, he headed a commercial group that covered government guaranteed loans and minority business banking.

By 1973, his banking expertise led to his being appointed director of the Illinois Department of Central Management Services by former Gov. Dan Walker.

Burris held the post until 1977.

From there he would become the national executive director and chief operating officer for Operation PUSH (now Rainbow/PUSH Coalition) from January to October 1977 where he worked closely with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Copyright 2009 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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