Generally speaking, if you’re an incumbent U.S. senator up for reelection, a front-page story in The Wall Street Journal would be an event worth celebrating, even more so when the story gets picked up by the papers back home. But somehow I doubt that Conrad Burns is celebrating his recent page-one appearance—especially since the article identifies Burns as one of four congressmen tied to the influence-peddling and money-laundering scandals of one-time D.C. superlobbyist “Casino Jack” Abramoff.
One needn’t read much more than the article’s title to get the message: “Federal Influence Peddling Inquiry Casts Wider Net,” read the big, bold font over the Journal’s signature stippled portrait of Casino Jack. The subhead further explains: “Four Lawmakers’ Dealings With Lobbyists are Studied; Low Threshold for Bribery?” Yep, that’s what it says, “influence peddling” and “bribery,” big, nasty words that play no more favorably in Washington, D.C. than they do at home in Montana.
The article goes on to elucidate the federal Justice Department probe: “Investigators want to know whether Mr. Abramoff and his lobbying firm partners made illegal payoffs to lawmakers and aides in the form of campaign contributions, sports tickets, meals, travel and job offers, in exchange for helping their clients.”
Abramoff himself appears to have been involved in the same scam white guys have been pulling ever since they set foot on this continent—namely, ripping off American Indians for everything they can get. According to the Journal, “Until this week, prosecutors seemed to be focused primarily on whether Mr. Abramoff and his partner, Michael Scanlon, had bilked a half-dozen tribes out of $80 million over four years.”
It would be one thing if Abramoff and Scanlon took the money to help out the nation’s long-suffering American Indians, but their specialty was considerably less philanthropic. Instead, they were engaged in tribe vs. tribe battles, with Casino Jack and his team of lobbyists spending lavishly to peddle influence for the purpose of making sure American Indian tribes that had grown wealthy from the operation of existing casinos didn’t have to compete with other tribes trying to start their own.
As is often the case, when the heat comes down the rats begin to run. Casino Jack’s partner Scanlon bolted last week when he pleaded guilty to a bribery charge, admitting that the duo had “engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts.”
Conrad Burns wound up in this cozy little nest of rats through a $3 million federal grant he helped obtain for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe in Michigan. As in Abramoff’s case, it would have been one thing had Burns simply been assisting a needy tribe, but thanks to their lucrative casino operation, the Saginaw Chippewa are far from needy these days; each member of the tribe now receives about $70,000 annually as a cut of the gaming profits. Compare that with, say, Montana’s average per capita income of about $25,000—or with Montana’s American Indian tribes, where average per capita income is considerably less than half that.
For his part, Burns has relied on the standard Republican defense of attacking the attackers, calling the accusations “complete garbage” in a column he penned almost two months ago. After being named one of the 13 “most corrupt members of Congress” by a citizens’ watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Burns accused the organization of being “a group of partisan hacks doing the dirty work of Democrats” and went on to write: “They have declared me guilty of ethics violations. Absolutely not true. I am not under any investigation, nor have I been.”
“Their absurd allegation is that because I received campaign donations from some of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s clients, the funding for the school was a payback to him,” Burns continued, explaining that he only included the $3 million appropriation because it was requested by two Democratic senators on the Interior Appropriations committee which he chairs. Obviously, Montana’s Republican senator was merely exhibiting the magnanimous bipartisanship for which he is so well known. That he raked in about $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff’s client tribes in four years was nothing more than the tribes taking part in politics—and certainly not any form of payback for political favors.
Admittedly, politics in Washington, D.C. play out in a different universe from politics in Montana. Here, the entire state budget for two years doesn’t break $10 billion. There, the military alone consumes that much in less than a week. With all those billions flying around, a few million really isn’t much more than some crumbs off the table.
But then there are the complicating factors. Take the mere coincidence that three of Burns’ former congressional aides went to work for Abramoff’s firm. Or that the Bush administration’s Justice Department can hardly be dubbed a front group for the Democrats. And, as The Wall Street Journal reported in its opening sentence: “A Justice Department investigation into possible influence-peddling by Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is examining his dealings with four lawmakers, more than a dozen current and former congressional aides and two former Bush administration officials”—which blows away Burns’ contention that he is “not under any investigation.”
Finally, the Journal article says the Justice Department investigation is expected to “take years to complete,” which means Montana’s Republican senator is likely to garner more front-page articles throughout his reelection run. Despite the political truism that “there’s no such thing as bad press,” for Conrad Burns, winding up on the front page is nothing but bad news.
When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.