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Burris' $1.5 Million Pal

This story was co-published with the Chicago Tribune.

Scott Olson/Getty ImagesRoland Burris, Illinois' newest senator, likes to talk about his years of service to the people of the state and his steadfast refusal to engage in the politics of favors.

He rarely discusses one milestone in his long public career: a record $800,000 campaign loan he received in his 2002 run for governor. Nor is he quick to mention the man who made the loan, businessman Joseph Stroud, who provided most of Burris' financial support for that failed bid, $1.57 million in all.

But court documents in an obscure civil case shine light on that relationship and raise questions of how much influence flowed from such a large loan, none of which Burris has repaid.

Shortly after the 2002 campaign ended, Burris phoned prosecutors and local police about criminal charges Stroud wanted filed against a former employee who was suing him, records show.

The businessman made it clear he had called on Burris, then a private citizen, because of Burris' political resume. "There is an appropriate person to go to who was formerly a state attorney general here in Illinois, I believe, to properly secure prosecution of a crime," he testified in the ex-employee's lawsuit.

Burris testified that he helped Stroud for free, denying an allegation in the suit that Stroud had offered him $20,000 if the former employee were charged with eavesdropping.

The owner of a local television station, WJYS-Ch. 62, Stroud denied making the offer. Burris, he testified, "received compensation enough. This was after I believe that I contributed a million-plus to his campaign."

Stroud also testified, however, that he gave Burris so much support for his 2002 campaign in part because it was in the best interests of African-Americans in Illinois. "And the fact that he received all this money in a campaign had no bearing whatsoever of future service," Stroud testified.

The calls from Burris do not appear to have had any impact. No charges were filed against the former employee, who eventually won a $3 million judgment from Stroud.

Burris and Stroud declined to comment for this article.

During the 2002 race, Stroud's support accounted for more than 70 percent of Burris' political fund. The unpaid $800,000 loan remains the biggest single Illinois gubernatorial contribution since records went online in 1994, according to the State Board of Elections.

Stroud made a second loan of $400,000, of which Burris repaid $6,000, for a total of about $1.2 million in loans to his gubernatorial race, state election records show. Stroud also provided $375,000 in cash and in-kind donations such as airtime on WJYS, billboard ads and staff.

Politicians don't always repay campaign loans, but the amount of outstanding debt in Burris’ case brought scrutiny from legislators last month when he appeared at a hearing over former Gov. Rod Blagojevich's possible impeachment.

Burris, who was appointed to Barack Obama's Senate seat by Blagojevich, told the House impeachment committee that he couldn't repay Stroud's loans because his campaign committee was closed. He also said Stroud hadn't asked for repayment. That answer seemed to satisfy some lawmakers, but others questioned what Burris might still owe his benefactor.

"Who walks away from $1.2 million?" Rep. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs) said in a recent interview, later adding: "It's just human nature to think that with a loan of this nature that there is a monetary and a personal indebtedness to this individual."

Illinois is one of only five states that set no limits on the amount an individual can donate to a candidate's campaign. This wide-open system has been cited as one of the leading causes of the state's culture of corruption.

Burris, while acknowledging to reporters in 2002 that trying to "hide" Stroud's contributions would be "like trying to put an elephant in a pup tent," also has tried to keep his relationship with Stroud relatively quiet.

Asked about Stroud at the time of the donations, Burris only would say he is a "friend," telling reporters, "That's all you need to know."

Burris met Stroud at Saturday morning meetings of Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/ PUSH Coalition, according to Burris' civil suit testimony. He said he helped to place Stroud's wife, Yvonne, on the board of the Chicago Sinfonietta. Burris also testified the two couples occasionally had dined together.

Now living in Oak Brook, Ill., Stroud owns and operates Jovon Broadcasting Inc. The company's station, WJYS, broadcasts mostly religious and informational programming from Tinley Park, a suburb south of Chicago.

Stroud is little known to the public, but the 67-year-old has been a generous donor in Illinois and national politics. Records show that the same Stroud company that gave the loans to Burris, Telephone USA Investments, donated $100,000 to Blagojevich in his 2006 re-election bid.

Together, Stroud, his companies and his wife have given about $1 million to various national Democratic causes, including the campaigns of Obama and former Sen. Hillary Clinton, federal election records show. Stroud also runs a private foundation that has donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton's charity.

The dealings between Burris and Stroud were recounted in a volley of little-noticed civil lawsuits at the Cook County courthouse that began in 2001 and came to a head in 2005. Stroud was sued by the former employee who claimed she was wrongfully fired. In turn, Stroud countersued, accusing her of illegally tape recording him.

He also contacted Burris and "asked him to make sure this crime is prosecuted in the best way he knew how," Stroud testified.

Burris then telephoned Tinley Park police once and the Cook County state's attorney's office several times about the recordings, though he did not personally investigate Stroud's allegations of eavesdropping, according to his testimony.

Burris further testified that he could not remember the names of two prosecutors he contacted because his notes from the conversations were lost or destroyed. Burris also said he spoke to the Tinley Park police chief. But the chief, Michael O'Connell, said at trial and in an interview that he never spoke to Burris about the case.

At the 2005 trial, one of Stroud's top aides admitted writing a note that suggested Burris was offered $20,000 in payments if the ex-employee were prosecuted. The note said: "Also made Mr. Burris aware of the basis for payments."

But Burris testified he wasn't offered any such payments and said he was only calling authorities to urge them to "investigate the situation and determine whether or not a crime had been committed."

Illinois' eavesdropping law forbids recording people without their permission, unless the tape can be used as evidence of a crime. The former employee, Jerri Blount, acknowledged taping her boss and a few fellow employees, but said she did so only after Stroud threatened her -- an allegation Stroud denied.

Despite intervening, Burris testified: "I don't know the eavesdropping law."

Ultimately, a jury ordered Stroud to pay Blount the $3 million to compensate her for back pay, emotional pain and punitive damages. Although the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the judgment on procedural grounds, the state Supreme Court overturned that decision last month and sent the case back to appellate judges for further review.

This story was reported and written by Ben Protess, a reporter for ProPublica, and Steve Mills, a Chicago Tribune staff reporter. ProPublica researcher Lisa Schwartz contributed to this report.

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