Sponsoring Burns 

Connecting the Butte debate’s dots

Some might think Conrad Burns would be a little more watchful of his corporate shenanigans after being named one of the three “most corrupt” members of the Senate by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) last week. But boy, would they be wrong. As the debate in Butte—and its perhaps illegal corporate sponsorship showed—Conrad’s nasty habits aren’t gone yet.

Sad to say, everything you’ve heard about D.C.’s “culture of corruption” is embodied in its poster boy, Montana’s own Conrad Burns. The CREW corruption report had just hit the Montana news when, as reported by CNN among other media outlets, Burns “flew on a private plane chartered by Vonage Holdings Corp. just days after he pushed legislation that the company has advocated for more than a year. Burns accompanied Vonage lobbyist Frank Cavaliere on the company’s chartered plane to and from the ‘13th Annual Burns Classic Golf Weekend’ in Bigfork, Montana.”

Superstitious people might say that since it was the 13th time Burns has shaken down the corporate lobbyists for money on the Bigfork greens, he could have been a little more cautious about his luck. But when the weekend came, old Conrad headed down to Butte for a debate with challenger Jon Tester and once again demonstrated the depth of his involvement in shady deals.

The Tester-Burns debate, supposedly “sponsored” by Butte’s Montana Standard, has become a much hotter debate since it ended. And why? Well, let’s just say that although the debate was supposed to be sponsored by the supposedly neutral Montana Standard, that’s not really what happened. Instead, the Standard decided to have a few co-sponsors and, you guessed it, one of them just happens to be a corporation for which Burns has traded the nation’s treasury dollars for personal campaign contributions.

But the outrage didn’t stop there.

Anyone who saw the debate coverage would have been hard pressed to miss the corporate banners so proudly displayed behind the podiums. On top was the Montana Standard banner, but right underneath it were large banners for Resodyn Corp., a Butte firm that has received millions of dollars in defense contracts, and Rhodia Chemical, a French-owned firm that was paid by the U.S. Navy to burn excess napalm as a substitute fuel for natural gas in its Louisiana petrochemical processing plant.

What makes this whole episode really disgusting is what that corporate sponsorship bought—and bought from a mainstream Montana newspaper at that. The Standard initially announced that the debate seating would be on a “first come, first served” basis, but what actually happened was quite different. The cost to rent the building in which the debate was held came to a mere $500 for the night. But apparently, the Standard decided to hit up a few corporate sponsors to pay 80 percent of that bill. Resodyne gave $200 and so did Rhodia, leaving the Standard, the supposedly unbiased, nonpartisan sponsor of the debate, with a mere $100 tab.

In return for their contributions, these corporations got a block of reserved front and center seats—which Resodyne then packed with Burns supporters! So much for the Standard’s “first come, first served” baloney. Stacking the deck, however, may be the only way Burns can get a showing these days. After his rout at the Hamilton debate, Montana’s GOP asked Republicans to jam Butte. But as noted by the Great Falls Tribune’s Gwen Florio, “Despite Republican appeals for Burns’ supporters within 100 miles to attend the debate, the crowd seemed largely made up of Tester’s backers, many of them wearing yellow ‘Fire Burns’ T-shirts.”

So just how chummy are Burns and Resodyne? For a quick swim in Burns’ cesspool, check out Tuesday’s article by Lee Capitol Bureau reporters Chuck Johnson and Jennifer McKee. In it, they detail how Resodyne’s director and his wife have both given Burns $4,200 in campaign contributions, while the company’s president Lawrence Farrar “has donated $10,800 to the Republican party in the past 10 months.” Moreover, Resodyne’s D.C. lobbyist worked for Burns as a Senate aide for seven years, then turned Resodyne lobbyist in 2003 for a firm that was Burns’ 14th largest campaign contributor between 2001 and 2005, and then went back to Burns’ office as legislative director last year. As an old friend of mine used to say “Don’t get any on ya.’”

As for Rhodia, their particular infamy comes from two felony convictions for violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act by illegally storing highly dangerous elemental phosphorus sludge at the defunct Rocker plant. That earned the company the dubious distinction of Montana’s highest-ever environmental fine—a whopping $18 million. With friends like these, I suspect Conrad Burns doesn’t need more enemies, but it’s exactly his nasty habit of courting friends like these that so accurately characterizes Burns’ tenure in the Senate.

Gerry O’Brien, editor of the Montana Standard, has been doing a dubious little dance trying to get out of the tar pit into which he tossed himself. At first O’Brien said Democrats were “blowing smoke” when they raised the issue of bias and questioned the legality of corporate contributions to a Senate campaign, which is illegal in Montana. Then O’Brien told reporters a story about complaints about the reserved seating—or lack thereof—that, as they say in the legal business, seems “inconsistent with the facts.”

The episode has seriously damaged the Lee paper’s reputation as a nonpartisan, unbiased news source. The last thing Butte needs, after a century of virtually total control of their media and lawmakers by the Anaconda Company, is to resurrect a sullied reputation as a corporate toady.

As for Conrad Burns, well, after the extensive national and state press coverage over the last year, you can’t say we weren’t warned about how he does business. But some habits are hard to break—and Burns’ nasty habits just don’t seem to be going away.

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 opinion@missoulanews.com.

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