An already bizarre trial involving allegations an African despot hired a pair of obscure South Side businessmen to overturn U.S. sanctions against his regime — with the help of Illinois politicians — took an even stranger detour Friday.
In the process, former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris got sideswiped, if not outright run over, with completely unrelated — and to this point unsubstantiated — accusations he once tried to shake down a contractor while in office.
Burris might be asking what he did to find himself in the middle of this mess, or just maybe he knows.
I’ve always been as eager as the next reporter to give Burris a swift kick, especially after his questionable acceptance of the Senate appointment from since-convicted Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
But there’s not enough information available at this stage to know how seriously to take this new accusation that Burris sought the promise of a $250,000 a year job in exchange for helping a businessman pursue military contracts.
Federal investigators don’t appear to have taken it too seriously, maybe because the information came to them more than a year and a half after Burris left office from a defendant facing prison in another case.
According to statements in court by prosecutors, federal agents didn’t question Burris about the allegation before last week, and even then apparently more in preparation for this trial than as a separate investigation.
Still, I’d certainly like to know more.
So would James Tunick and Michael Leonard, the lawyers for C. Gregory Turner, the guy scheduled to go on trial next week on charges he struck a deal with Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and others to lobby U.S. officials to lift federal sanctions, but failed to register as a foreign government agent.
Burris is supposed to be a witness for the prosecution. He is expected to testify he never authorized a letter purportedly sent by his office to a Zimbabwe official indicating his support for lifting U.S. sanctions.
RELATED:Ex-Sen. Roland Burris accused of shake down in court documents
In light of the previously undisclosed shakedown allegations, Turner’s lawyers say they question Burris’ credibility, especially if prosecutors never followed up on the matter.
Turner and his co-defendant, Prince Asiel Ben Israel, were allegedly supposed to be paid $3,405,000 for their work, which is the kind of money that could get a lot of politicians sniffing around for a taste.
But court documents suggest the men never received more than a first installment of $90,000 and spent most of their time and effort trying to score the rest — or “THE PAY DAY” as Turner called it in an email.
More importantly, there has been no allegation from federal prosecutors that the men ever paid — or even offered — any money to the Illinois politicians they enlisted in their cause, including Congressmen Danny Davis and Bobby Rush.