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Burns Won’t Duck Tribal Controversy

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) admitted last week that provisions benefiting an Indian tribe were placed in a fiscal 2004 Interior spending bill without his knowledge, although he denied that there was any improper effort to help one of embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clients, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan.

In an interview Tuesday, Burns did not attempt to distance himself completely from the Abramoff controversy, adding that as the Senator tasked with overseeing the Interior subcommittee on the Senate Appropriations panel, he was ultimately responsible for whatever was included in the final legislation enacted by Congress.

Burns, however, acknowledged that he was not as vigilant as he should have been when his staff was drafting the bill. Burns did not offer any explanation as to why he failed to monitor what was included in the legislation.

“A lot of things happened that I didn’t know about,” said the Montana Republican. “It shouldn’t have happened, but it did.”

Burns took responsibility for his subcommittee’s work. “It was on my watch,” he said.

Burns also said neither his office nor the Senate Ethics Committee approved a controversial trip taken by two of his staffers to the Super Bowl in 2001, a trip paid for by a casino company partially owned by Abramoff. One of those aides, Will Brooke, later went to work for Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig. Abramoff was employed at Greenberg Traurig until March 2004, when the firm cut its ties with the once high-flying influence peddler.

Burns, who has found himself under attack from Big Sky Democrats for his ties to Abramoff, said that one of his current aides has already been interviewed by the Ethics Committee regarding the 2001 trip but that he personally has not talked to the panel. Margo Rushing, Burns’ office manager, voluntarily spoke to Ethics Committee staffers recently, according to Burns.

Montana Democrats have filed an ethics complaint against Burns following news reports in Roll Call and The Washington Post detailing his ties to Abramoff. Abramoff, his business associates and American Indian tribes he lobbied for donated more than $130,000 to Burns’ re-election campaign and several PACs under his control during the 2001-02 cycle, and another $16,500 in the following cycle.

Burns, who is up for re-election next year, said his office is unaware of anyone giving clearance for Brooke and Ryan Thomas, an Appropriations Committee aide, to travel to the Super Bowl in Miami.

A spokesman, J.P. Donovan, said later that Brooke and Thomas would not have needed such clearance if the trip was paid for by an American Indian tribe, as was believed to be the case at the time. Under Senate ethics rules, Indian tribes, as sovereign nations, are given the same standing as state, local or the federal government, and trips sponsored by those entities do not have to be reported.

But the excursion was underwritten by SunCruz, a Florida-based casino cruise ship company, according to the Washington Post. Abramoff, a part owner of the company, also represented SunCruz as a lobbyist. Tony Rudy, a former aide to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) who at that point worked for Greenberg Traurig, accompanied the staffers on the trip, according to several sources.

The three GOP staffers also visited a SunCruz casino boat as part of the trip, the sources said.

Brooke, who has since left Greenberg Traurig, believed the trip was “tribally funded.”

One issue that has been raised is the role Burns and his staff played in securing a $3 million federal grant for a Saginaw Chippewa school. The Saginaw Chippewas, who operates the largest casino in the Midwest, is one of the wealthiest tribes in the country and had been turned down by the Interior Department in its request for funds under a federal program aimed at poorer tribes. The Saginaw Chippewas received the grant only because of Congressional help. Burns has insisted repeatedly that he intervened in the Saginaw Chippewa matter only at the urging of the Michigan delegation, including the state’s Democratic Senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow.

Two other provisions in the 2004 Interior spending bill also benefited Abramoff’s clients. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), then a member of the House Appropriations Committee, inserted language urging the Interior Department to turn down an application by a Louisiana tribe, the Jena Choctaws, to open their own casino. Abramoff lobbied for the Louisiana Coushattas, and Vitter received political help from a Louisiana anti-gambling group funded in part by the Coushattas.

Another Abramoff tribal client, the Mashpee Wampanoags of Massachusetts, had language inserted into the legislation urging the federal government to complete work on their long-standing request for official recognition. Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pushed for inclusion of that measure in the bill.

CORRECTION:The April 11 article “Burns Won’t Duck Tribal Controversy” incorrectly reported that Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) pushed for language on the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian tribe to be included in the fiscal 2004 Interior appropriations bill. Kerry and Kennedy wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs on Oct. 15, 2003, asking the agency to “act expeditiously” in evaluating the tribe’s recognition request, although they never formally asked for such language to be inserted in the Interior bill.

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