CHICAGO - Brushing aside charges that he tried to sell Illinois' vacant U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris to the post yesterday in defiance of Senate leaders who said they would not admit anyone the governor selected.
It was an abrupt about-face by Blagojevich, who had said after his arrest Dec. 9 on federal corruption charges that he favored a special election for a successor to President-elect Barack Obama. But the governor said he acted after Illinois' Democratic-controlled General Assembly declined to approve legislation for a special election.
"Please don't allow the allegations against me to taint this good and honest man," Blagojevich said while introducing Burris at a downtown news conference.
Senate Democratic leaders say that it is not the candidate Blagojevich has chosen but rather the tainted governor himself that prevents them from accepting Burris as a replacement for Obama.
"This is not about Mr. Burris; it is about the integrity of a governor accused of attempting to sell this United States Senate seat," the Democratic leadership said in a statement issued yesterday. "Under these circumstances, anyone appointed by Gov. Blagojevich cannot be an effective representative of the people of Illinois and, as we have said, will not be seated by the Democratic Caucus."
In a statement yesterday, Obama said: "Roland Burris is a good man and a fine public servant, but the Senate Democrats made it clear weeks ago that they cannot accept an appointment made by a governor who is accused of selling this very Senate seat. I agree with their decision, and it is extremely disappointing that Governor Blagojevich has chosen to ignore it."
Blagojevich's move seemed designed to trump fellow Democrats who control the U.S. Senate and have unanimously warned him against making the appointment because of the criminal charges. His choice of Burris, Illinois' first African-American elected statewide, presents senators with the dilemma of saying no to a black replacement for Obama, who was the nation's only African-American senator.
That point was driven home at the news conference by Rep. Bobby L. Rush, who said it is a matter of national importance that an African-American replace Obama in the Senate.
"Let me just remind you that there presently is no African-American in the Senate. ... This is just not a state of Illinois matter," the Chicago Democrat said.
"I would ask you to not hang or lynch the appointee as you try to castigate the appointer," Rush said. "Roland Burris is worthy."
Although Democrats vow not to seat a Blagojevich appointee, it is not clear whether they have the legal authority to block one who is fully qualified.
In the past, when faced with a disputed election, senators have called upon the Rules Committee to look into the issue. After an investigation, the panel can then recommend to the full Senate whether the candidate should be seated.
The Supreme Court has said in the past that the Senate and House cannot refuse to seat new members who meet all qualifications for office. In 1969, it rebuked the House for refusing to seat Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, a black Democrat from New York who was re-elected despite being accused of ethical lapses.
The constitutional standard for the House and Senate "is identical," the court said, but it did not consider whether an appointed senator has different standing than one who is elected.
Early word about the governor's surprise move prompted Senate Democratic leaders to hold a conference call in which they decided not to seat Burris or any other Blagojevich appointee. There was little discussion and no dissent in reaching the position, a Senate aide said.
Their statement came as Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White said he would not certify Burris.
But White aides acknowledged that the lack of a signature on the form is symbolic and that the office does not believe it will have any practical impact on Blagojevich's appointment.
"We feel the governor can still take the appointment to the Senate," said spokesman David Druker.
In accepting Blagojevich's appointment, Burris said he would deal with both White's action and the Senate Democratic leadership's vow not to seat him.
"Faced with these challenges and challenged with these crises, it is incomprehensible that the people of the great state of Illinois will enter the 111th Congress short-handed," Burris said. "We need leadership in Washington."
Shortly after Obama's victory Nov. 4, Burris made known his interest in the Senate appointment but was never seriously considered, according to Blagojevich insiders. In the days after Blagojevich's arrest - and despite questions over the taint of a Senate appointment - Burris stepped up his efforts to win the governor's support.
Burris said he spoke with Blagojevich on Sunday night about the appointment.
"I was asked, 'If he would appoint me would I accept?' and the answer is yes," said Burris, who offered no comment on the governor's legal situation.
Blagojevich praised Burris for his "unquestioned integrity" and "extensive experience," calling him a senior statesman.
The governor's announcement came three weeks after his arrest on political corruption charges. Federal authorities, citing secret wiretap recordings, allege Blagojevich sought a Cabinet position, an ambassadorship or a high-paying job from the incoming Obama administration in exchange for naming a candidate favored by Obama to the vacancy. An internal report by the Obama transition team found no offers of any quid pro quo in conversations held by incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Blagojevich and his staff regarding the seat.
Burris has given more than $20,000 to Blagojevich's campaign fund on his own and through his consulting and law firms, state campaign finance records show. Burris' consulting company received about $290,000 in state contracts with the Illinois Department of Transportation a few years ago, according to state comptroller records.
Also yesterday, William J. Quinlan, Blagojevich's general counsel for the past four years, resigned to return to private practice. "We should not let recent events diminish the pride in our accomplishments or the commitment to public service with which we approach our job each day," he wrote to co-workers.