Why was Burris Talking to Labor?

Amanda Carpenter

2/16/2009 2:46:00 PM - Amanda Carpenter
Given the clout Big Labor has over the Democratic party and the upcoming “card check” legislation Sen. Roland Burris (D.-Ill.) could be voting on soon, Burris’s recently disclosed discussions with labor leader Ed Smith warrant further inquiry.

As you all know, Burris was controversially tapped to become senator by disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich last January after federal investigators announced they had evidence the governor had attempted to “sell” President Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. And, remember U.S. Attorney Patrick’s Fitzgerald’s criminal complaint against Gov. Blagojevich said the governor engaged in discussions with his chief of staff and an unnamed SEIU official about a “three way” deal to make Blagojevich head of an SEIU-affiliated organization called "Change to Win" in exchange for appointing the SEIU's preferred candidate.

Blagojevich asked he be paid a $250,000-$300,000 salary for the labor slot.

The SEIU official was later identified as Tom Balanoff, who acted as “an emissary” for Valerie Jarrett.

But now that Burris has revealed he discussed the appointment with Smith, that brings another labor leader into the mix, showing how closely labor was to Chicago’s “pay to play” politics.

Smith, president of union insurance provider ULLICO Inc., is one of three people associated with disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich that Burris suddenly “remembered” discussing his appointment with. Smith also serves as alderman of the 28th ward in Chicago.

Burris said he initiated the conversation by calling Smith. "I asked Smith whether I had any chance of to be appointed to the Senate seat," Burris said.

Weeks after being sworn in as a new U.S. senator, submitted an updated affidavit to the Illinois State House detailing these conversations. The other two people were the governor’s brother, Robert, who headed the governor’s fundraising arm and solicited Burris for hefty donations and John Harris, the governor’s former chief of staff, with whom Burris discussed a government job his nephew was pursuing.

Burris describes Smith "as a friend and supporter of the former governor's" but defensively says, “I do not consider Mr. Smith closely related to or a representative of Governor Blagojevich” in the new affidavit, but leading media outlets say otherwise.

The Chicago Tribune describes Smith as “a labor ally of the former governor.”

So what is it? Was Smith close to Blagojevich or not?  Why would Burris be discussing the "chances" of his appointment otherwise? This doesn't pass the smell test. And, given the fact important labor legislation may be soon coming up for a vote, more urgency is needed in finding out exactly what role Big Labor played in helping the former governor decide Burris was the right man to send to Washington.