Former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) is no longer a Member of Congress, but don’t count him out of the Capitol Hill scene just yet.
Burns, who narrowly lost his seat in 2006 to Sen. Jon Tester (D) after being embroiled in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, is back in Washington, D.C. His return comes after the three-term Senator suffered a stroke in December.
“My dad always said, You look like a mule; you better work like one,'” Burns joked of his return to the consulting business and lobby shop GAGE, started by his former chief of staff, Leo Giacometto.
Through his recovery in Montana, Burns remained registered to lobby on behalf of the American Quarter Horse Association. He also recently joined the board of Mongolia Forward, a uranium mining company started by Giacometto to help export uranium to the United States.
Burns said he has long had an interest in Mongolia. And as a Member, he traveled to the Asian country.
“Wonderful people,” Burns said. However, he compared the country’s infrastructure to “Montana in 1935.”
Burns and Giacometto are hoping that Mongolia Forward, a joint venture with MonAtom, Mongolia’s government-owned uranium development company, can assist exporting the mineral to the United States.
“Uranium mining is not that politically sensitive,” Giacometto said. However, once nuclear power and yellowcake, a uranium concentrate powder, are under discussion, there are a lot of political sensitivities that Burns can help address, Giacometto added.
“The Senator has the ability to take very complex issues and make them simple,” said Giacometto, who is banking on Burns to use that skill in Mongolia Forward and with the consulting firm.
Working From Home
While Burns will continue to spend most of his time in Montana, the former lawmaker said that won’t keep him from working.
At 75, Burns said he is a beneficiary of the telecommunication legislation he helped pass in 1996 that enabled broadband and wireless Internet to be more accessible in rural states such as Montana.
“It allows you to do business anywhere in the world and not be there,” Burns said.
He has also remained active on the fundraising scene.
Republican operative Karl Rove headlined an event honoring Burns that drew about 400 people in Billings, Mont., last month. Burns said he has done a handful of similar events to help the Montana Republican Party’s coffers.
On the Road Again
Spotted in the Capitol last week on his inaugural return inside the Beltway since his stroke, Burns is still on the road to a full recovery.
“You wouldn’t wish one of these on your worst enemy,” Burns said of the stroke, which initially left him unable to walk.
After twice-a-week physical therapy sessions, Burns can now walk without assistance. But he still has numbness in his left hand that he hopes will go away with time and use.
As Burns works on his lobbying comeback, that re-entry wasn’t always guaranteed, even before his stroke.
For months during the 2006 campaign, he was tainted by his connection to Abramoff, the once-superlobbyist who went to prison. Burns accepted $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, his clients and associates. The then-Senator later gave that money away after Democrats criticized him.
Burns is just one of the politicians and lobbyists who were ensnared in the Abramoff scandal and who are now trying to get active again inside the Beltway. Former Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) and his wife, Julie, both came under scrutiny in the Abramoff affair. After more than five years, neither has been charged with a crime, and John Doolittle recently told Roll Call that he was interested in getting a K Street job.
Erik Iverson, former chief of staff to Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), said that Burns’ willingness to remain involved in politics is “really a credit to Conrad.”
“He would have every reason in the world to be bitter about how he was treated,” said Iverson, who worked as a senior adviser for Burns’ final campaign.
Burns said he felt vindicated when, in 2008, the Justice Department gave official word that he was no longer under investigation for doing favors for Abramoff clients in exchange for campaign donations.
“Justice never ever talked to me,” Burns said. “I don’t think they ever looked at me.”
But the experience didn’t sour him on politics.
“I’m not bitter,” Burns said. “I would say just what I said all along: This is the only town where perception becomes fact.”