2nd Senator to Return Abramoff Funds; Lobbyist Paid Columnist

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) said he plans to return $150,000 in campaign contributions he collected from controversial lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his associates, reversing a position his office had taken days earlier.

Also yesterday Copley News Service syndicated columnist Doug Bandow admitted accepting money from Abramoff for writing as many as 24 op-ed articles favorable to some of Abramoff's clients. Copley suspended the column pending a review and Bandow resigned as a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute.

Montana Democrats and watchdog groups have been attacking Burns for holding onto the Abramoff donations despite a federal probe examining the lobbyist's ties to at least half a dozen lawmakers, including Burns. In a statement, the senator said he was returning the money because the contributions "served to undermine the public's confidence in its government."

Four days earlier a Burns spokesman, James Pendleton, had told the Associated Press that the lawmaker would not return the donations. "There's nothing to return -- the money has been spent," Pendleton said about one of the senator's campaign committees.

Since January 2002, at least 25 lawmakers and two Republican Party committees have either returned or given to charity thousands of dollars in contributions received from Abramoff, who is under investigation for collecting $82 million from Indian tribes and spending the money in allegedly improper ways. Abramoff is also charged with fraud in an unrelated case in Florida.

On Monday, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said he had returned $67,000 in donations from Indian tribes represented by Abramoff and his associates. Dorgan said he never met the lobbyist and did not take any actions on his behalf but he wanted to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

Dorgan is the senior Democrat and Burns the chairman of the appropriations panel overseeing Interior Department agencies that deal with Indian tribes.

The Washington Post has reported that, under pressure from Burns, a $3 million grant from a federal program intended for impoverished Indian tribal schools went to one of the richest tribes in the country. The tribe that received the money in 2004 was at the time a client of Abramoff.

Burns said he did not champion the funding because of Abramoff. He has also asserted that the Abramoff contributions to him were legal and fully disclosed. At the same time, however, he said that he wanted his constituents to know that he was maintaining "the highest integrity in public office."

"From what I've read about Jack Abramoff and the charges which are pending or about to be brought against him, he massively deceived and betrayed his clients," Burns said in his statement. "Plus Abramoff appears to have deliberately lied to dozens -- maybe hundreds -- of members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike."

Abramoff, through his attorney, has denied any wrongdoing.

Burns went further and called on other lawmakers to return contributions from Abramoff, his clients and his associates. "This is an important step that all public officials should take in order to renew the faith of . . . all Americans, in their government," he said.

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