An Illinois Democrat appointed by disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to a U.S. Senate seat in 2008 has become an issue in the lead-up to a federal trial in Chicago, with defense attorneys claiming onetime Sen. Roland Burris was once accused of seeking to extort a business.
Temporary Senator Roland Burris Looms Large in Corruption Trial for Chicago Man
Turner's attorneys said in court Friday that the extortion allegation against Burris was described in federal documents that prosecutors turned over to the defense as part of the pre-trial discovery process
Word about the allegation against Burris, who held the Senate seat from 2009 to 2010, arose during a pre-trial hearing Friday for a Chicago man charged with illegally lobbying U.S. lawmakers to lift sanctions against Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
Prosecutors have indicated they will call Burris, 77, to testify against C. Gregory Turner, who has pleaded not guilty. Defense lawyers are attempting to dent the ex-senator's credibility. The trial starts Monday.
Blagojevich is serving a 14-year prison term on multiple corruption convictions, including for trying to secure campaign cash or a high-paying job for an appointment to the Senate seat, which was vacated by Barack Obama after he won the 2008 presidential election.
Amid a political firestorm following his December 2008 arrest, then-Gov. Blagojevich, who is also a Democrat, named Burris to the seat. Burris, a former Illinois attorney general, was widely ridiculed for accepting the appointment.
Turner's attorneys said in court Friday that the extortion allegation against Burris was described in federal documents that prosecutors turned over to the defense as part of the pre-trial discovery process.
Neither the defense nor prosecutors provided details in court. But after the Friday afternoon hearing, defense attorney James Tunick spoke to reporters holding what he said was one of the federal documents. The word "SENSITIVE" was stamped across it in capital letters.
"The accusation was that Sen. Burris offered to promote a ... business to the U.S. military in exchange for $250,000 a year when he (left) office," said Tunick. He looked down at the document and appeared to be paraphrasing it — not quoting it directly.
Defense attorneys did not say if federal prosecutors ever took the allegations seriously or, if they did, over what period of time — weeks, days or merely hours.
A message left for Burris at his Chicago law firm wasn't immediately returned Friday night and he does not have a listed home number. A one-time attorney for Burris, Timothy W. Wright III, said he no longer represented the former senator. But he said he would forward a message to Burris that The Associated Press was seeking a comment regarding the allegations.
The trial prosecutors did not speak to reporters outside court, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, Randall Samborn, later declined any comment. A spokeswoman for the FBI in Chicago, Joan Hyde, also declined any comment.