Over the last four years, Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has earmarked more than $8 million for a project ostensibly designed to make Montana a center for space-related research and industry. But despite the millions of dollars in federal funding, it appears to have produced few tangible results while spawning several state and federal investigations. It has also earned lobbyists and companies connected to Burns hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts and lobbying fees as well as more than $80,000 in campaign contributions for Burns and Rep. Denny
The story of the program — the Inland Northwest Space Alliance — illustrates not only the opaque manner in which federal earmarks are doled out, but also the often-interconnected and complex roles lawmakers, their family members and former staff play in the procurement and use of these spending initiatives.
It is unclear how much of the $8 million in earmarks Burns sought to steer to INSA either directly or through the University of Montana has been allocated to the group. However, INSA’s tax records, federal lobbying reports and an audit by Montana’s legislative auditor of earmarks funneled to the group through the university show that between 2003 and 2005, more than $761,000 has been spent on salaries and benefits. Additionally, more than $320,000 has gone to former Burns Chief of Staff Leo Giacometto and a company associated with him.
According to Montana State University professor Loren Acton, a former astronaut who has long been involved in the private aerospace industry, almost from its inception INSA was plagued by a lack of “competence” and the technical inability to meet its goal of turning Montana into a center of private space travel and exploration.
“It didn’t seem to us that there was a foundation of competence ... to do what should be done with NASA funding,” Acton said. Acton, whose space research program at MSU is heavily funded by earmarks secured by Burns, recommended in a September 2004 memo to university officials that MSU have only limited dealings with INSA, a recommendation to which the school agreed. “I’m glad we kept them at arms’ length,” Acton said.
Burns campaign spokesman Jason Klindt maintained that federal funding steered toward INSA was intended to help create jobs in the state and the lawmaker had no knowledge that federal funding was going toward lobbying expenses — a violation of federal spending rules.
“There’s no story here,” Klindt said, arguing that Burns should not be faulted for trying to “bring good-paying jobs to Montana.”
Similarly, Erik Iverson, Rehberg’s chief of staff and a campaign aide to Burns this year, maintained that neither Burns nor Rehberg was involved in any unethical or illegal activities and that both lawmakers were simply interested in bringing high-tech jobs to the state.
INSA has long had close connections to Burns. His daughter, Keely Burns, briefly held uncompensated positions on the boards of directors of both INSA and the University of Montana’s Space Privatization Consortium, which created INSA. Sen. Burns also worked closely with INSA President George Bailey to create the alliance, and Bailey credited former Burns aide Kathy Olson with being instrumental in founding INSA, according to Acton’s memo.
In 2003, Burns, Bailey and Mike Gold, counsel for Bigelow Aerospace, tentatively agreed on a deal to create the “Free Flyer Consortium” between INSA and Space Sciences Inc., a nonprofit research organization founded by hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, whose empire includes not only the Budget Suites hotel chain and Bigelow Aerospace, but also the now largely defunct National Institute for Discovery Sciences, a UFO, paranormal and “consciousness” research outfit based at Bigelow’s Skinwalker Ranch in Nevada.
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