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Sen. Burns Scrutinized for Earmark Tied to Abramoff

Earmarks are in the spotlight in Washington, D.C. They're the special legislative favors, often worth millions of dollars, that go to an individual or company or locality. Their numbers have exploded in recent years, and now earmarks are showing up at the center of scandals. They figured in the downfall of California Rep. Duke Cunningham, who was sentenced this month to eight years in prison for taking millions in bribes and gifts. Now an earmark linked to lobbyist Jack Abramoff is threatening the political career of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.

The earmark was slipped into a 2004 appropriations bill at the last possible moment. It gave the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe $3 million for a new school. One reason it's causing the senator heartburn is that the Saginaw Chippewa aren't from Montana, the state Burns represents -- they're from Michigan.

"When I first [saw] that, I thought, well, why not Montana?" says Carol Juneau, who represents the Blackfeet Reservation in the Montana State Legislature. She notes that, unlike her tribe and others in Montana, the Sanginaw Chippewas are wealthy from their gambling interests. "I thought Sen. Burns forget where he came from," she says.

Betty Cooper, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Council, says her Montana tribe could have used the money for its dilapidated boarding dorm, where at-risk Indian children are housed to make sure they get to school.

"They tell us to all stand in line and take our turn," Cooper says. "[Burns] didn't look to us when it was our turn. We were next on the list to get our facility when he put this money to this Michigan tribe."

Cooper says that several years ago, the tribe began asking Burns and the rest of the Montana delegation in Congress for help in getting federal funds for their boarding dorm. But even though Burns was chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Interior Department and its Bureau of Indian Affairs, she says the senator gave them no help. Cooper suspects campaign contributions linked to Jack Abramoff influenced the senator. In fact, Burns got more money from Abramoff and his associates than any other lawmaker -- nearly $150,000.

Burns' office refused repeated requests for an interview. But during a brief exchange in a Senate hallway, Burns said he'd appropriated lots of money for Montana tribes, and he tried to distance himself from the Saginaw Chippewa earmark.

"The request did not come from Mr. Abramoff or any of his people," Burns said. "The request came from the Democratic delegation that represents Michigan."

Michigan Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin did ask for money for the Saginaw Chippewa school in 2003. But the request wasn't funded. That's partly because the Bureau of Indian Affairs said the tribe's school wasn't eligible, since it's not part of the bureau's system. The Michigan senators dropped the Saginaw school from their appropriations request for the next year. The tribe was looking to others for help, says Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C.

"They knew by this point that Jack Abramoff was their lobbyist -- and Abramoff had a relationship with Burns," Sloan says. "Burns was on the appropriations committee, and Burns could make it happen for them. And he did."

E-mails and official correspondence show that Abramoff and Burns continued to press the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of the Saginaw Chippewa. In one e-mail exchange, Abramoff tells a member of his lobbying team that he's just talked to the No. 2 official at the Interior Department, Steve Griles. Abramoff writes that the department needs to send a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs supporting the Saginaw Chippewa. The other lobbyist responds that the two lawmakers to whom Abramoff wants to send the letter will be "far stretched to sign a letter for a tribe from Michigan. It doesn't look good for either of them," he says.

The names of the two lawmakers are blacked out in the e-mail. But within two months, Interior received a letter arguing the Saginaw Chippewa's case; it was signed by Burns and his counterpart, the chairman of the House Interior Subcommittee. A month later, the Saginaw Chippewa contributed $4,000 to Burns' re-election campaign. It wasn't the tribe's first contribution to Burns. Shortly after Abramoff became their lobbyist early in 2002, the tribe sent a check for $20,000 to Burns' political action committee, Friends of the Big Sky. Another check for $2,000 went to the senator's campaign fund.

In fact, Abramoff had begun laying the groundwork for influencing Burns even earlier. In 2001 he flew two of Burn's Senate staffers, Will Brooke and Ryan Thomas, to the Super Bowl in Miami.

Public integrity lawyer Marc Elias says that, while none of these actions may have been illegal individually, prosecutors could find the total picture compelling.

"I think these cases are going to rise and fall based on whether the prosecutors believe that, when you look at the totality of the circumstances, what you have is an 'I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine' mentality.'"

Despite the letter from Chairman Burns and his House counterpart, the Bureau of Indian Affairs still refused to fund the Saginaw Chippewa School. Abramoff began to sound desperate in late August. In one e-mail to an associate he writes: "I am in a real bad situation. We had the Chairmen send a letter to the secretary, but no response."

A month later, in an e-mail to a member of his lobbying team, Abramoff wrote that his Interior contact, Steven Griles, had advised him to have "Burns call Norton" -- Secretary of the Interior Gayle Norton. Abramoff goes on to write, "I asked Will to get that done, and he will. " Abramoff is referring to Will Brooke, Burns' chief of staff.

There's no evidence to confirm whether Burns did call Norton. Griles, whose activities have been scrutinized by investigators, says he never gave Abramoff special treatment. In any case, the Interior Department and the Bureau of Indian Affairs remained firm.

So in late October of 2003, just before the final vote on the Interior appropriations bill, Burns resorted to an earmark. Without public debate or a vote, he inserted a paragraph in the bill's conference report. It lifted previous restrictions and awarded the Saginaw Chippewa Indians $3 million for their tribal school. Marc Elias says while earmarks like this are legal, they raise questions for prosecutors.

If, in fact, this was a deserving situation to be funded, why did it have to be inserted in the dark of night?" Elias says. "It doesn't mean that it's, per se, illegal. But it does raise the question of why it was done that way."

Within two months of the earmark, Burn's chief of staff, Will Brooke, went to work for Abramoff at the lobbying firm Greenberg Traurig. During the next year, the Saginaw Chippewa contributed another $5,000 to Burns' political action committee.

In a recent Vanity Fair article, Abramoff was quoted as saying, "Every appropriation we wanted from Sen. Conrad Burns' committee we got." Abramoff declined to be interviewed for this story. Will Brooke did not return repeated calls.

For his part, Burns has said he wishes Abramoff had never been born. But now it's Burns who is fighting for his political life. He faces a Republican primary challenger in the Montana Senate race. Burns' Democratic opponents have pulled even or passed him in public opinion polls, and he's been forced to defend himself in campaign ads.

In one such ad, Burns says, "I don't know who Abramoff influenced, but he didn't influence me."

Tom Fitton of the public interest group Judicial Watch is unconvinced. He says the earmark is suspicious when viewed in light of the political contributions Burns received from Abramoff's tribal client, as well as the fact that a Burns staffer went to work for Abramoff. "I think people are going to rightly assume something was up," Fitton says. "And it ought to be the subject of a criminal investigation -- which, indeed, reports indicate it is."

Burns says he hasn't been interviewed by investigators. The senator has tried to give most of the contributions he received from Abramoff and his associates to a Montana/Wyoming tribal leaders group. They've refused to take the money.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.

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