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.
The money that was donated to Burns from Abramoff and his lobbying associates will be given to Indian charities, Burns said.
The Billings Gazette reported this week that Burns's former chief of staff, Will Brooke, had volunteered to talk to Justice Department officials about Abramoff's interactions with Burns. Burns has said that he has not been contacted by federal investigators.
Congressional committees are examining allegations that Abramoff may have defrauded his Indian clients and improperly influenced lawmakers. A partner of Abramoff, public relations executive Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty in November to conspiring to bribe a congressman and is cooperating with federal authorities.
In the Bandow case, Jamie Dettmer, Cato's communications director, said officials at the think tank learned of the payments Tuesday when contacted by a reporter for Business Week, which reported the story on its Web site yesterday. Bandow admitted writing as many as two dozen articles for payments from Abramoff of between $1,000 to $2,000 per piece, Dettmer said.
"We accepted his resignation," Dettmer said. "Doug acknowledges it was a serious lapse in judgment. This is a think tank that has a lot of integrity, and we are very zealous guardians of the reputation of this think tank. . . . We are secure in the knowledge that our other scholars have not been doing this."
Bandow, who was hospitalized in San Diego for knee surgery, could not be reached for comment.
Another person who has admitted accepting payment from Abramoff for favorable op-ed pieces is Peter J. Ferrara, a Social Security expert and senior policy adviser at the Institute for Policy Innovation, Business Week reported. In a telephone interview, Ferrara said he has stopped writing columns for lobbying firms but sees nothing wrong with the practice as long as he is expressing his own views.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) became the first Republican to call for an overhaul of lobbying laws as a way to clean up in the wake of the Abramoff scandals. Previously, only Democrats had proposed tightening the rules in reaction to the ties between lobbyists and lawmakers.
McCain recommended that indirect lobbying by urging voters to contact lawmakers be disclosed for the first time, that former government officials be barred from lobbying for a longer period of time and that lobbyists disclose any gifts to lawmakers worth $20 or more.
Separately, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed said in a speech earlier this month that he regrets funding an anti-gambling campaign with money from Abramoff's clients who had backed casinos. "Had I known then what I know now, I would not have undertaken that work," Reed told a Christian youth group in Georgia where he is running for lieutenant governor.
Staff writer Christopher Lee and database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.