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Montana Republicans: Sober in Kazakhstan

Montana Republicans had a sit-down chat with HOH yesterday to try to set the record straight on their CODEL to Kazakhstan last May, which, as was previously reported by HOH, allegedly devolved into drunken debauchery with Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) getting trampled by a horse and calling the locals “Coneheads.”

Not so, was the unanimous verdict of an assembly of nine men that included a Marine colonel, Montana Republican Congressional staffers and two aides from the Kazakh Embassy. The men, seated around a large conference table in the office of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), took turns disputing the origin of the gossipy tale — an anonymous e-mail from someone claiming ties to the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan who wrote that Rehberg and Burns “embarrassed the Embassy and the UNITED STATES with their antics.”

First, Col. Arthur White, the Senate’s Marine Liaison, who accompanied Rehberg and Burns on the Congressional delegation, dissected the e-mail line by line. The mysterious sender of the e-mail said Rehberg drank “some 20 shots of vodka” during a ceremonial lunch in Kazakhstan, then ran into the woods, “returned on a horse, fell over (stumbling drunk) and was trampled by another horse.”

“That’s not true,” the colonel told HOH. “He probably had half a dozen.” (For the record, half a dozen is two more than Rehberg confessed to having; and six more than Rehberg’s press secretary first asserted his boss had consumed.)

Still, the point was made. Rehberg didn’t have 20 shots of anything. And the roughly six shots he did drink were put down the hatch over the course of two and a half hours, said White, who has traveled on many CODELs. “I’m there to make sure nobody does anything foolish,” he assured.

As for the falling-off-the-horse bit, White said what happened was what Rehberg has already told HOH: that the Congressman wasn’t accustomed to riding the style they ride in Kazakhstan, where the saddles have no horns on them. When a Kazakh rider came up beside Rehberg, an accomplished rancher and horseman, to help him off his horse, “he kind of jostled the Congressman’s horse ... just as the Congressman was stepping down,” White said. Then, he continued, Rehberg “happened to be underneath the other horse and it stepped on him.”

Aides then showed HOH a slide show of the trip with lots of broad smiles and happy moments that included Burns and Rehberg toasting the Kazakhs for deploying 27 troops to help with the U.S. war in Iraq. (Roman Vassilenko with the Kazakh Embassy says the 27 troops were de-miners who successfully destroyed “over a million” landmines.)

The slide show also included a roughly 35-second digital film clip of Rehberg returning on his horse. He certainly didn’t appear to be drunk, but we never saw him dismount. We did see the Kazakh rider take the reins from Rehberg’s horse in preparation to help him off, which obviously didn’t go so well.

The mysterious e-mail claimed that Rehberg broke three ribs. Rehberg told us he only broke one. White said the Congressman cracked two ribs. Suffice it to say, Rehberg got hurt.

As for the mysterious e-mail’s claim that Rehberg made fun of the Kazakh “national costume doing a ‘Coneheads’ routine from Saturday Night Live, over and over (including making beeping sounds like an alien),” Col. White insisted: “Never happened.”

Aibek Nurbalin, from the Kazakh Embassy, who attended yesterday’s meeting, said Burns and Rehberg “were just sipping vodka” as is customary at ceremonial state dinners in Kazakhstan.

The Kazakh ambassador, Kanat Saudabayev, released a statement on Tuesday saying: “The Republic of Kazakhstan is pleased” with the results of the visit from Burns and Rehberg, especially the signing of a “memorandum of understanding between the Almaty State University and the University of the State of Montana.”

“At the same time,” the ambassador says, “we repudiate completely anonymous accounts of Rep. Rehberg’s unfortunate accident. The accident did indeed take place in the way Rep. Rehberg has described it, and we wish him speedy recovery.”

“It’s nothing more than character assassination,” argued Erik Iverson, Rehberg’s chief of staff. He said his office, together with Burns’ office, are still investigating the true origin of the e-mail but so far, Iverson said, they’ve been told that “it did not originate with anybody at the State Department or the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan who were part of the trip.”

While their investigation is underway, the Montana Democratic Party has issued a Freedom of Information Act request to the State Department asking for all documents, e-mails and other communications about the May 2004 trip.

A Match Made on the Gridiron? In a quarterback sneak, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) was on his way to Chicago Tuesday night to meet with legendary ex-Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka about the possibility of calling an end run in the Illinois Senate race.

That would be the same George Allen who is the son of the legendary late football coach who was an assistant when Ditka played for the Bears. Think there will be any football discussed?

Ditka, who now keeps busy with a variety of activities that includes being a pitchman for the erection drug Levitra, is reportedly considering jumping into the Senate race, as desperate Republicans search for an unheralded draft pick to replace Jack Ryan, who took himself out of the game late last month.

According to sources, Allen is not going to blitz Ditka with pleadings to run, and there is no announcement imminent. He is simply traveling as a courtesy, to feel Ditka out, and to determine whether Da Coach, like Walter Payton eluding tacklers, can break free of his myriad contractual commitments should he choose to enter the political arena.

Right now, state Sen. Barack Obama (D) is the odds-on favorite to replace retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). Some football teams like to be the underdog, of course.

In Ditka, the GOP would get a huge celebrity who could raise a lot of money quickly.

Shootin’ Hoops With I.A., T-Mac et al. The usual Saturday pickup game of middle-aged white guys at the downtown L.A. Sports Club got a little more challenging last weekend.

In town for a charity event, Philadelphia 76er Allen Iverson, NBA rookie of the year LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Houston Rockets’ Tracy McGrady, aka “T-Mac,” had some fun schooling the usual suspects at the club.

Lawyer Lobbyist Thad Strom, a lobbyist with Parry Romani Deconcini & Symms, had the pleasure of guarding Iverson during the game.

“He was toying with me like a cat on a string!” Strom said, laughing at how Iverson magically dribbled the ball between Strom’s legs, around him and straight to the basket.

At one point, Iverson cut backdoor on Strom, caught a pass and went up for what was probably the easiest slam dunk he’s ever had. But Iverson refused to take such trash to the can. Instead of dunking it, Iverson let the ball drop gently to the floor and he turned condescendingly to Strom and said, “That’s a bucket.”

But Strom loved every minute of it and said he didn’t play so badly against Iverson. “I did strip the ball from him once,” he said. And we believe him: It probably was just once.

On a more self-deprecating note, Strom said, “Maybe he’s preparing for the Olympics where he’ll be guarded by slow, white Europeans.”

Strom, incidentally, a former GOP chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is something like a fourth cousin two-and a-half times removed to late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). Both Stroms are from Edgefield, S.C. The lobbyist once worked in the Senator’s office. And it was Strom — Thad Strom, that is — who held the infamous 100th birthday party for his distant cousin that ended up costing Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) his leadership job for saying he wished Strom — the Dixiecrat, that is — had won the presidency and taken the country in a different direction.

Gallery Fight Fallout. Neither New York Post reporter Vince Morris nor CBS cameraman P.G. Cuong have been punished, as far as we know, by their news agencies or their member galleries for their participation in the Big Fight in the Senate Radio-TV Gallery last week. But the Executive Committee of the Radio-Television Galleries unanimously adopted a motion this week warning its members that they’d better behave or else risk getting their credentials yanked.

“The Executive Committee wishes to remind all members of the Congressional Radio-TV Galleries that they are expected to maintain decorum while on the Capitol grounds and within the Capitol complex. Inappropriate behavior is unacceptable and may result in sanctions up to and including the loss of congressional media credentials.”

Word of the executive committee’s action was released by Lawrence Janezich, director of the Senate Radio-TV Gallery, to which Cuong remains a credentialed member (as long as he refrains from trying to choke other reporters.)

The Executive Committee of the Congressional Press Galleries, where Morris is a credentialed member, has not released a statement on the matter.

HOH is still working on a name for the tussle, and suggestions are welcome. How about, The Duel by the Press Pool?

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