(AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
WASHINGTON (AP) Sen. Roland Burris wants to be known for his work on Capitol Hill. But once again he's finding it hard to escape the cloud that followed him to the Senate.
Tainted from the day he was appointed, Burris on Wednesday denied new allegations of a pay-to-play scheme as newly revealed wiretaps showed him begging for his Senate seat and offering to donate to the campaign of Rod Blagojevich, later ousted as governor of Illinois.
Burris told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he never wrote any checks to the Blagojevich campaign following the conversation. The wiretap proves there was no "pay to play" involved in his appointment, he said.
Burris said he talked with Robert Blagojevich, who was chairman of the Friends of Rod Blagojevich campaign committee, about fundraising because he felt he had to if he wanted to be considered for the Senate seat.
Even then, Burris said, he knew he could not raise money for Rod Blagojevich without creating the appearance he bought the seat.
"Here I am wrestling with this situation," Burris said Wednesday. "How do I help the governor? How do I not offend the governor's brother?"
Political observers said the tapes ensure that Burris has no political future.
"If anything, the tapes confirm the position he was in," said David Bositis, senior political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
"Nothing Burris did or does was going to change his prospects," Bositis said. "Even if he kept his nose to the grindstone and worked hard and so forth, that wasn't going to make a difference."
Burris, 71, wanted the Senate seat as a crowning achievement, something to carve into his tombstone. Instead, it has made him a political pariah, viewed on Capitol Hill mainly as an oddity.
"People identify Burris with a governor who made multiple attempts to sell the Senate seat and they say, 'Here's the guy who took it,"' said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar of U.S. politics at the American Enterprise Institute. "He can't win in that sense."
On the tapes, Burris is heard asking Blagojevich's brother to tell the governor that he would like to be appointed to the Senate seat vacated by President Barack Obama. Burris then notes that it would look bad for him to raise money directly for Rod Blagojevich, so he promises to personally write the governor a check and take other actions to help the campaign.
"OK, OK, well we, we, I, I will personally do something, OK," Burris says.
Asked Wednesday why he did not tell an Illinois House impeachment committee about the conversation, Burris replied: "You're being asked questions and one thing you don't do is to try to volunteer information that wasn't asked. There was no obligation there."
Burris said he did not consider informing members of the committee afterward. "Why would I in hindsight turn around and say, 'I shoulda, shoulda, shoulda?"'
The Senate Ethics Committee is investigating Burris, as is a state attorney in Illinois. 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.
"We've done some very serious and meaningful work," Burris said. "I've been a part of all that energy here, all that's helping people. And that's what I seek to do."
Burris casts himself as a team player, a loyal Democrat. He doesn't have any close friends in the Senate, though he says he chats with every member he bumps into. Most conspicuous is his lack of a relationship with his Illinois colleague, Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat. Durbin routinely takes new senators under his wing, but he has never been supportive of Burris' Senate aspirations — he told Burris it would be a bad idea to accept his appointment in the first place.
"As far as the relationship goes, I wouldn't say it's a bad one," said Durbin spokesman Joe Shoemaker. "It's just not a very deep one."
Durbin switched from tepid acceptance to calling for Burris' resignation after Burris revealed that he had tried, and failed, to raise money for Blagojevich.
At a stop in Champaign, Ill., Burris looked like a typical politician walking into a Small Business Administration seminar at a hotel on the University of Illinois campus.
The hotel's developer, Peter Fox, warmly shook Burris' hand as he told him, "We're lucky to have you here."
"Roland was always so gracious," Fox, past head of the state's Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, said afterward. "He's just always been a friend of mine."