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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Conrad Burns key figure in multiple investigations

Posted by Bob Brigham

Anytime Senator Conrad Burns votes for Native Americans, you know something must be crooked. So crooked that there are now three different investigations (FBI, Justice Department, and the Interior Department inspector general).

A $3 million grant from a federal program intended for impoverished Indian tribal schools went to one of the richest tribes in the country under pressure from Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), who oversees the budget of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe that last year received the money for a new school, the Saginaw Chippewas of Michigan, was at the time a client of Jack Abramoff, a prominent Republican lobbyist whose practices are the subject of multiple federal investigations. Abramoff, his associates and his wealthy tribal clients have been an important source of Burns's campaign funds, providing 42 percent of the contributions to his "soft-money" political action committee from 2000 to 2002, according to federal election records.

Burns pressed for the appropriation over the objections of Interior officials, who said that the grant was not intended for such a purpose.

It gets better...

The FBI, the Justice Department's public integrity section and the Interior Department inspector general are investigating Abramoff's lobbying practices, focusing on tribal clients that paid him and a public relations associate $82 million between 2001 and 2003. Among the areas investigators are examining, former Abramoff associates and tribal representatives said, are whether legislative favors were granted in Congress in exchange for tribal campaign contributions, and whether Abramoff opened doors on Capitol Hill by wooing congressional aides with the promise of jobs, as well as tickets to sporting events, trips, meals and other gifts.

Abramoff's lobbying team had strong connections with Burns's staff. Among their ranks was an appropriations aide who shuttled back and forth between jobs on Burns's staff and Abramoff's shop. Another Burns appropriations staffer and Burns's chief of staff were treated to a trip to the 2001 Super Bowl in Florida on a corporate jet leased by Abramoff's team.

As chairman of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee, Burns controls funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is in a key position for tribes seeking special projects. His political action and campaign committees have received $137,000 from Abramoff lobbyists and their tribal clients since 2000; Dorgan has received $45,000 from them.

Ryan Thomas is at the heart of the scandal.

Ryan Thomas, a Burns staffer on the appropriations subcommittee, took the lead in tangling with Interior officials over the funding, former department officials said. He did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

Thomas had close ties to some members of Abramoff's lobbying team, former Abramoff associates said. He and Will M. Brooke, Burns's chief of staff, traveled to the 2001 Super Bowl on the Abramoff corporate jet, along with several staffers from the office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).

Ouch, connections to Abramoff and Delay??? Will Brooke is also facing the heat:

Brooke left Burns's staff and went to work for Abramoff's group at the end of 2003, two months after the adoption of an Interior Appropriations conference report that included other provisions benefiting Abramoff clients, among them the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts. That language urged the Bureau of Indian Affairs to move on the tribe's long-standing request for recognition, a first step toward gaining the right to open a casino.

And Shawn Vasell also makes the story on the scandal:

Shawn Vasell, another member of Abramoff's lobbying team, served as client manager on the Mississippi Choctaw account, and shuttled between jobs in Burns's Montana office and Abramoff's shop. Vasell was registered as a lobbyist for the Choctaw and Coushatta tribes in 2001, joined Burns's staff in 2002, then rejoined Abramoff's team as a lobbyist for the tribes in 2003.

Posted at 02:36 PM in 2006 Elections, 2006 Elections - Senate, Montana | Technorati