Burns Goes on Offense Against Ethics Charge

Posted March 25, 2005 at 6:04pm

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), seeking to combat allegations of improper conduct in his dealings with former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is mounting a multipronged offensive to clear his name.

In recent days, Burns has hired Cleta Mitchell, a well-known GOP lawyer, to oversee his legal defense; sent a letter to both the Senate Ethics and Indian Affairs committees rebutting one of the charges against him; accused Montana Democrats of partisan “slander” for filing an ethics complaint against him; and issued a blanket denial of any wrongdoing to media outlets.

But Burns, who is up for re-election next year, has yet to answer the question of who actually paid for a Super Bowl junket to Miami by two of his staffers in early 2001. Speculation has centered on SunCruz Casinos, a bankrupt Florida cruise ship line partially owned by Abramoff, or even Abramoff himself, as the sponsor of the trip. SunCruz could have legally paid for the trip, while Abramoff could not.

Burns has also articulated the same defense that he and other other GOP lawmakers have used since the Abramoff scandal first broke one year ago, claiming that he and his aides were “duped” by Abramoff and did no legislative favors for him or his clients.

Earlier this month, Roll Call and The Washington Post reported that Burns received more than $130,000 in hard and soft money during 2001 and 2002 from Abramoff, his colleagues and several American Indian tribes he represented both officially and unofficially, including the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan.

Several of Abramoff’s tribal clients won legislative victories in the fiscal 2004 Interior appropriations bill, which Burns helped put together in his role as chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the Interior.

The Washington Post reported that Burns and his staff lobbied hard for a $3 million federal earmark for a Saginaw Chippewa school despite objections from Interior Department officials, who believed that the tribe did not quality for such aid.

The Saginaw Chippewas paid Abramoff $4.3 million for lobbying services between 2000 and 2003, and gave at least $9 million more to Michael Scanlon, a Republican public relations expert who worked closely with Abramoff, according to federal lobbying reports and information provided to the Indian Affairs Committee.

The Senate Finance and Indian Affairs committees and a federal task force are investigating Abramoff’s lobbying practices. Abramoff and Scanlon were paid at least $82 million by Indian tribes between 2001 and 2003.

In his March 23 “open letter” to the media, Burns reiterated his assertion that the $3 million earmark for the Saginaw Chippewas in the Interior funding bill was placed there at the request of Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and was approved under “the regular funding request process” established by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), his predecessor as chairman of the Interior panel.

With Bob Ream, head of the Montana Democratic Party, calling for an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee into Burns’ dealings with Abramoff, Burns in his letter accused Montana Democrats of exploiting the political furor over Abramoff for partisan purposes.

“Finally, the Montana Democratic Party chairman’s ugly political slander that contributions given to my political committees were tied to my support for the appropriation for a tribal school is a ‘coming attractions’ of what we will face in next year’s campaign,” Burns wrote. “The allegations are just another vicious, untrue campaign attack.”

Burns, however, did acknowledge in his letter a 2001 Super Bowl trip by Will Brooke, his former chief of staff, and Ryan Thomas, an Appropriations aide. Burns said the two staffers thought the trip had been paid for by an Indian tribe, which would be allowed under Senate ethics rules. Registered lobbyists and foreign agents cannot pay for travel by Senators or Senate staff.

Brooke has also admitted that he and the other Congressional staffers on the trip, including a top aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), visited a SunCruz gambling ship during the junket. Brooke went to work for Abramoff at the firm Greenberg Traurig shortly after passage of the 2004 Interior bill.

“Initially,” Burns wrote, his two staffers “were told it was being paid for by a Tribal Government, and agreed to the trip after referring to Senate Ethics Committee rules. The rule states that all tribes are sovereign nations, and gifts from sovereign nations are not subject to same rules as corporations and individuals.”

Burns added, “What we have learned 4 years later is that many Hill staff have been misled by this lobbyist, Mr. Abramoff, and the staff have subsequently been unable to determine who actually paid for the trip.”

Burns and his aides have not said which tribe was supposed to have picked up the tab for the trip.