In 1978, Burris was the first African-American elected to statewide office in Illinois, when he was elected Illinois Comptroller. He served in that office until his election as Illinois Attorney General in 1990. Since then, he has unsuccessfully run for office four more times.
Burris was appointed by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich to replace President-Elect Barack Obama as the junior senator from Illinois. The appointment was controversial, as the governor was already under investigation and there were rumors of his being paid for the appointment. Prior to Burris’s appointment, Obama was the U.S. Senate’s only African American; he resigned his Senate seat after being elected President of the United States. Burris was the subject of an ethics probe.
Personal life and education
Burris was born and raised in the small community of Centralia in southern Illinois. The Burris family can trace their roots to American slaves in the American South, mainly in the states of Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee. He was a 1955 graduate of Centralia High School. He attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1959. He was an exchange student on scholarship to study International Law at the University of Hamburg in Germany. He earned his Juris Doctor degree from the Howard University School of Law in 1963.
Burris has built a mausoleum for himself in Oak Woods Cemetery on Chicago’s South Side. His tombstone proclaims, “TRAIL BLAZER”, and includes a list of his accomplishments, with space left for future ones.
After graduating from law school, Burris became National Bank Examiner for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for the U.S. Treasury Department. In that capacity, he traveled throughout the Midwest, examining banks in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin. From 1964 to 1973, he worked at Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust Company (now Bank of America), serving as tax accountant, tax consultant, commercial banking officer, and vice-president. He headed a commercial group that covered government guaranteed loans and minority business banking.
In 1973, he was appointed by Illinois Governor Daniel Walker as Director of the Department of Central Management Services, serving through 1977.
He was National Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer for Operation PUSH from January to October 1977. He was in private law practice from October 1977 to January 1979, and again from June 1995 to present.
In 1985, Burris was selected for the position of Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. This decision, coming on the heels of the party’s landslide loss to President Ronald Reagan, generated controversy, since Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher, who had served as the campaign manager for presidential candidate Jesse L. Jackson, was the nominee of the party’s Black Caucus. Jackson harshly criticized the party’s actions, and refused to recognize Burris’s selection, claiming that it was part of an effort by the Democratic Party leadership to pander to the white American electorate.
Burris sought the Democratic nomination for the office of Illinois Comptroller in 1976, but was defeated by Michael Bakalis. In 1978 Bakalis did not seek re-election as Comptroller, choosing to run for Governor and Burris won the Comptrollership. Burris served for three terms from 1979–1990. He was the first African American to be elected to a statewide office in the state of Illinois. While serving as Comptroller, Burris was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1984, losing to Paul Simon who went on to defeat incumbent Senator Charles Percy.
From 1991 to 1995, he was Attorney General for the State of Illinois, where he supervised over 500 lawyers. There, he was the second African American ever to be elected to a state office of Attorney General in the United States. In 1985, 19-year old Rolando Cruz was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death along with a co-defendant in a DuPage County Circuit Court, for the kidnapping, rape, and murder of a 10-year old child. In 1992, Assistant Attorney General Mary Brigid Kenney, whom Burris had assigned to fight Cruz’s appeal, sent Burris a memo identifying numerous errors in the investigation and trial in Cruz’s initial conviction, and refusing to participate in upholding what she considered to be a wrongful conviction. Burris ignored Kenney’s warnings, and she resigned in protest, writing to Burris, “I was being asked to help execute an innocent man… Unfortunately, you have seen fit to ignore the evidence in this case”. In September 1995, DNA tests showed that neither Cruz nor his co-defendant were the contributors of the semen found at the crime scene, thus exonerating them. In 2002 Governor George Ryan fully pardoned Cruz, and went on to declare a moratorium on the death penalty in Illinois, asserting that the system was “fraught with error”.
In 1993, Burris, an advocate for a national handgun ban, helped to organize Chicago’s first Gun Turn-in Day. The following year, Burris admitted that he kept a handgun in his home and had not turned it into police as he had urged others to do. A spokesman stated that Burris had “forgotten about” the handgun.
In 1994, he was an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Illinois. While Burris had been favored for much of the primary campaign, he and Cook County Board President Richard Phelan were both defeated by Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch, who had a strong late showing in the final weeks of the campaign despite being seen as the underdog. Netsch would go down to defeat the following November against incumbent Republican Governor Jim Edgar in an election where Democrats lost every single race for statewide office.
In 1995, Burris ran as an independent for mayor of Chicago, losing to incumbent Richard M. Daley. In 1998, he again unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Party nomination for Governor of Illinois. In that race, Burris caused a controversy by referring to his Democratic primary opponents — Jim Burns, Glenn Poshard (who eventually won the nomination) and John Schmidt — as “nonqualified white boys”. During his 2002 run for governor against, among others, Rod Blagojevich, he was supported by, among others, current President Barack Obama.
Career outside of politics
Burris is manager/CEO of Burris & Lebed Consulting, LLC, which was formed in April 2002. It is a consulting service concentrating in public relations, lobbying, political strategies, and corporate strategies. He also serves of counsel to the law firm of Gonzalez, Saggio and Harlan, L.L.C. His areas of legal concentration are business transactions, estate planning, wills, trusts, probate, and consumer affairs.
As of 2008, Burris was on the Board of Directors of the Inland Real Estate Corporation as an Independent Director and was Chairman of its Governance and Nominating Committee. Inland is a $2 billion Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), listed on the NYSE, which owns medium-sized shopping centers. As an Independent Director, he served on the Audit Committee.
Burris was featured briefly in a scene from the Hollywood blockbuster, The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford. A scene in the movie, which was mainly shot in Chicago, shows Burris in the St. Patrick’s Day parade, waving to spectators.
Senate appointment scandal
On December 14, 2008, Burris suggested himself as a possible caretaker for the United States Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama, saying he would not run for reelection if appointed. Prior to this suggestion, Governor Blagojevich had been considering asking Oprah Winfrey but feared she would not take his call. This suggestion came in the wake of an FBI investigation regarding charges of corruption against the Governor for seeking bribes in a pay-to-play scheme for the empty Senate seat and other offenses. Blagojevich says he appointed Burris because he believed Burris’s ego made him the only person who would fight to be seated.
Burris filed an affidavit on January 5, in advance of his testimony before the Illinois impeachment committee, in which he wrote that “prior to the December 26, 2008, telephone call from Mr. Adams Jr., there was not any contact between myself or any of my representatives with Governor Blagojevich or any of his representatives regarding my appointment to the United States Senate”. However, according to the FBI wiretap transcript recorded November 13, Burris told Rob Blagojevich, who was the chairman of the ex-governor’s reelection campaign, that he understood that Blagojevich wanted money and that he was “trying to figure out how to deal with this and still be in the consideration for the appointment”, and that he was willing to “personally do something”, including offering to give the governor a personal check. He realized, however, that such an action might look like he was trying to buy the seat and wanted to find a way to avoid that perception.
On December 30, 2008, Governor Blagojevich announced that he was naming Burris to the seat. Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White registered the appointment in the official records of Illinois on December 31, 2008. However, Secretary of State White declined to sign the Senate’s certification form.
On January 5, 2009, Secretary of the United States Senate Nancy Erickson rejected Burris’s certificate of appointment to the Senate as invalid. Erickson cited Senate Rule 2 as the reason for the rejection. Senate Rule 2 requires that an appointment be certified by both a state’s governor and the state’s secretary of state. Because Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White had refused to sign the certificate, Erickson concluded in her findings that the certificate did not conform to Senate Rule 2. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Illinois senior senator Dick Durbin agreed with Erickson that a Senate rule demands that the secretary of state sign the appointment.
Reid initially said that the Senate would not seat Burris, citing Article I, Section 5 of the United States Constitution, which states that “Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members”. Reid and other senators had previously stated, before Burris was in contention, that they would use Article I authority against any appointment by Blagojevich. The Senate also could have referred the appointment to the Senate Rules Committee, thus stalling it until Blagojevich’s status was settled. Some Democrats, including the chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, Dianne Feinstein, and the Congressional Black Caucus, spoke out in favor of Burris being seated.
Burris appeared in Washington at the January Congressional swearing-in ceremony (January 6) to claim his seat, but was denied entry into the Senate chambers. Burris and his lawyers insisted that Burris was “now the junior senator from the state of Illinois”, although technically he was not a senator and could not be one until being administered the oath of office.
On January 9, 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the appointment only required the signature of the governor and the secretary of state’s signature is not required to make the appointment valid. It also said Illinois is not obligated to use, and hence its Secretary of State is not required to sign, the Senate’s “recommended” certification form. The State Supreme Court noted that a different form was available: White had already registered the appointment in Illinois’s official records, and Illinois law requires the Secretary of State to provide a certified copy, with signature and seal, of any of the state’s official records to anyone willing to pay the fee. It suggested that Burris simply obtain a certified copy of the appointment registration. In its Burris v. White ruling the State Supreme Court not only declared that the form of certificate contained in rule II of the Standing Rules of the United States Senate was, according to its own terms, only a recommended form but it further remarked that “no explanation has been given as to how any rule of the Senate, whether it be formal or merely a matter of tradition, could supersede the authority to fill vacancies conferred on the states by the federal constitution”. Following the ruling, White provided Burris with a certified copy of the appointment’s registration, and Burris delivered that copy, bearing the State Seal, to the Secretary of the Senate. On January 12, 2009, after the Secretary of the Senate announced that she and the Senate Parliamentarian deemed Burris’s new credentials valid, Senate leaders decided to seat Burris. Burris was sworn in by Vice President Dick Cheney on January 15, 2009.
Burris filed an affidavit with the Illinois House committee that oversaw Governor Blagojevich’s impeachment, dated February 4, to supplement his earlier answer to a question posed by the committee. Burris acknowledged Rod Blagojevich requested “assistance in fund-raising” for the governor three times in the weeks and months before Blagojevich appointed Burris. Illinois House Republicans consider this to be at odds with Burris’s testimony during the impeachment trial, and are considering pursuing a perjury investigation. Democratic officials, including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, supported an investigation. Burris stated that he told the governor’s brother Rob Blagojevich that he could not donate to Gov. Blagojevich because “it could be viewed as an attempt to curry favor with him regarding his decision to appoint a successor to President Obama”, and that he “did not raise or donate any funds to Governor Blagojevich after the fundraiser on June 27, 2008”.
On February 16, in comments to reporters, Burris told reporters that the governor’s brother had asked him to raise ten- to fifteen-thousand dollars for the governor in October 2008. Burris said that after the phone call, he “talked to some people about trying to see if we could put a fundraiser on”, but that no one was willing to donate to the governor. Burris says he spoke again with the governor’s brother around November 10 to tell him that his earlier efforts to raise money were unsuccessful, but that he might be able to talk other people into donating about a thousand dollars to the governor. Burris also said that around November 15 or 16, he told the governor’s brother that he could not raise any money for the governor, nor would he donate to the governor himself.
On February 17, Sangamon County State’s Attorney’s Office released a statement saying that it is investigating Burris for possible perjury charges connected to his testimony to the panel of the Illinois House of Representatives investigating the governor’s impeachment. The Senate Ethics Committee also reportedly was preparing a preliminary investigation into the matter.
On February 18, the Chicago Tribune, the state’s largest newspaper, called on Burris to resign. In the editorial, the board wrote, “His protests that he had nothing to hide just don’t square with his obvious attempts to hide something.” The editorial board of The Washington Post also called for his resignation saying Burris’s story has more twists than the Chicago ‘L’ because Burris had offered five varying explanations, three of them under oath, of his contacts with associates of Blagojevich. Burris refused to resign his seat, despite calls to do so from new Illinois governor Pat Quinn and statements from fellow Illinois Senator Dick Durbin that Durbin would not support a Burris re-election bid.
On March 7, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt has asked the FBI for tapes of wiretapped phone calls between Burris and Rod Blagojevich, which he will use for his investigation of whether to charge Burris with perjury. On May 26, 2009, tapes were released from the wire taps. Roland Burris promised to “personally do something” for Blagojevich’s campaign. During the conversation, Burris and Blagojevich discussed the possibility that Burris might raise campaign money on a larger scale, saying “I know I could give him a check myself.”
The Associated Press reported a few days after the revelation: “When asked in a recent interview with The Associated Press how the scandal back home has affected him, Burris made a sweeping gesture with his hands and literally brushed the matter aside.”
On May 28, 2009, Democratic Illinois Rep. Jack Franks and Republican Rep. Jim Durkin, the ranking Republican on the impeachment panel who had questioned Burris during his January 8 testimony, claimed that Burris committed perjury and called for him to be removed from office. In 2009, Senator Burris was named one of the 15 Most Corrupt Members of Congress by good-government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Sangamon County State’s Attorney John Schmidt announced on June 19, 2009, that Burris would not face criminal perjury charges, stating that Burris’s promise to “personally do something” for Governor Blagojevich was too vague to rise to the level of criminality, as it could be interpreted in too many different ways. Burris praised the announcement, saying, “The truth has prevailed”; meanwhile, Durkin criticized Schmidt’s decision, saying, “They’re all contradictions to his previously sworn statements. To me, it’s a pretty strong case.”
The Senate Ethics Committee issued a letter on November 20, 2009, admonishing him saying that although no ethics charges would be pursued, “The Committee found that you should have known that you were providing incorrect, inconsistent, misleading, or incomplete information to the public, the Senate and those conducting legitimate inquiries into your appointment to the Senate