Despite being in the news for the past two weeks, Roland Burris still seems like a mystery to most of us outside of Illinois.  My friend Mark Tapscott tries to shed some light on the new junior Senator from the Land of Lincoln, and discovers that Burris is a man indebted to his supporters … literally:

Illinois campaign finance records reveal another side of Roland Burris that may give pause to those worried by the growing congressional culture of lobbyists wielding special interest influence to gain questionable earmarks, pork barrel spending contracts and insider favors with federal regulatory officials.

In his 2002 attempt to win the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Burris depended heavily upon Joseph Stroud, an Illinois political heavyweight contributor, thanks to his ownership of Jovon Broadcasting and Telephone U.S.A. In the 2002 race, [Stroud] provided Burris with the following loans and contributions:

  • Jovon Broadcasting individual contribution to Burris:  $200,000
  • Jovon Broadcasting in-kind contributions to Burris:    $179,895
  • Telephone U.S.A. (and USA) loans to Burris:               $1,200,000

Burris repaid $6,000 of the Telephone U.S.A. loans in November 2003, but no other payments appear in the records. This puts the total support from Stroud to Burris at $1,573,895.

Presumably, these contributions were all legal, but the outstanding loans could create a potential conflict of interest should Stroud have issues with federal regulators once Burris is sworn-in as Illinois senator.

In fact, unpaid debt to contributors is not legal if they fall outside of contribution limits.  Campaign finance regulators treat that as cash contributions when the candidate reneges on the loan.  Otherwise, candidates across the nation would simply take loans from the rich for their campaigning and “forget” to repay them.  The Telephone USA “loan” is nothing less than a $1.2 million contribution, less the $6,000 Burris repaid of it, and if Illinois has contribution limits less than $1.2 million or prohibiting corporate donations, then this unpaid loan would definitely be illegal.

If Burris has not repaid this loan, he might be subject to prosecution for campaign-finance violations.  If so, Harry Reid might have one more card to play before Burris takes his seat in the Senate — if he wants to play it.  Certainly, either the Ethics or Rules committees should take note of this extremely large contribution to Burris to determine whether he owes the money back to the lender.

It may not be enough to keep the Senate from holding up Burris’ seat, but it could make it difficult for Burris to stick with the appointment.  Perhaps the Democrats will bail out Burris by paying off the loan, but it’s an inauspicious start for an embarassing appointment if the Examiner has its facts straight.