For nearly a decade, a group of former top aides to Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) have successfully used personal and professional connections to Burns, Montana State University’s Burns Technology Center and other institutions associated with him to secure more than $20 million in lobbying fees for themselves, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in federal research contracts, tax breaks and subsidies for their clients.
Since 1998, more than a dozen companies in the telecommunications and high-tech sector — ranging from international powerhouses such as Microsoft, Intelsat and Lockheed Martin to homegrown outfits including Montana-based Bacterin and Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Advanced Acoustic Concepts — have paid lobbying retainers to former Burns aides, including Leo Giacometto, William Brooke, Brett Scott, Mark Baker, Randell Popelka, Stan Ullman, Shawn Vasell, Mike Rawson and Robert Arensberg.
As chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on communications through the end of 2004 — and as an ongoing member of the Commerce and Appropriations committees — Burns holds significant sway over how the government regulates and aids the telecommunications industry.
Popelka returned to Burns’ office last summer, but many of the others now work either exclusively or part time for Giacometto’s new firm, GAGE. Hewlett Packard, a recent addition to the board of the Burns Technology Center at MSU, last year hired Vasell as an in-house lobbyist. Brooke set up shop both on his own and with the firm of Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon following his departure from Greenberg Taurig in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal.
A key node within this network of money and influence surrounding Burns is the Burns Technology Center, which describes itself as “a leader in creating and delivering premier opportunities for learning to Montana State University and a global spectrum of communities,” including the use of continuing education courses and online learning tools, according to the center’s Web site.
According to the center’s 2004 financial report, the Senator is the BTC’s chairman of the board. He also helped set up the center in the early 1990s. And his chief of staff, Clark Johnson, and his state director, Todd Capser, serve as board members.
Companies that fund the BTC or whose executives or lobbyists have served on its board include Microsoft, Intelsat, AT&T, Qwest, Qualcomm, IBM, TimeWarner and BellSouth. NASA and the National Science Foundation also have provided funding and leadership to the BTC, as have trade groups for the film, recording and television industries.
These companies have counted Burns as a key ally during the past several years, particularly as Congress has undertaken a series of telecommunications overhauls, from measures to expand access to broadband Internet service to cellular telephone technology rules to a satellite privatization measure in 2000.
Although it often can take decades for major policy or spending bills to move through the Senate, the $20 million-plus investment these companies have made in Burns’ former aides appears to have paid off.
For instance, the satellite giant Intelsat has paid Scott and Brooke more than $1 million as part of its successful campaign to first become a private company in 2000 and then to stave off potentially crippling financial requirements that Congress had built into the original privatization bill that was championed in the Senate by Burns.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.