An Investigative Target? A Subject? A Fine Line.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has been described as a
Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) has been described as a "target" in a federal investigation. His campaign has challenged that characterization. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
By Blaine Harden and Anushka Asthana
Sunday, September 24, 2006

The hotly contested U.S. Senate race in Montana devolved last week into a confusedly legalistic, ferociously partisan game of "target" shooting.

Is Sen. Conrad Burns (R) a "target" of a federal investigation into the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal? Is he a "subject" of the investigation? Or is he utterly in the clear?

The games began Monday when the executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, Jim Farrell, told a Montana TV station that Burns is indeed the "target" of the federal probe.

Except for voters familiar with the technical meaning of the word "target," as defined in a Justice Department criminal manual, the claim was not especially newsworthy. Sources familiar with the investigation have said since last November that Burns, a three-term incumbent, is one of the lawmakers under scrutiny.

The Washington Post itself has muddied the waters on this question, by writing twice in the past two months that Burns was apparently not under investigation and then running a correction that cited previous articles reporting that he was.

Burns accepted and later returned $150,000 in campaign donations from Abramoff, his lobbying firm and his clients. He pressured the Interior Department to award a $3 million grant to a wealthy Indian tribe that was an Abramoff client, according to news accounts. Abramoff himself told Vanity Fair that he and his clients received "every appropriation we wanted" from a subcommittee chaired by Burns.

On Tuesday, Erik Iverson, campaign manager for Burns, generated headlines across Montana by declaring that Farrell was maliciously off-target. He scolded the Democrats for "pushing baseless allegations" to help challenger Jon Tester, who is president of the Montana Senate.

Iverson announced that the senator's criminal lawyer had confirmed with the Justice Department that "Burns is in fact not the target" of its investigation.

But what exactly does that mean?

Not much, said Stanley M. Brand, a lawyer in Washington with decades of experience in defending prominent officials charged with corruption. He represented former White House aide George Stephanopoulos in the Whitewater investigation and former representative Dan Rostenkowski, the Illinois Democrat who pleaded guilty to mail fraud in 1996.

Brand said that distinctions in a federal criminal manual between a "target," someone the Justice Department has decided to seek charges against, and a "subject," someone under investigation who could be upgraded to a target, are largely meaningless in a practical sense.

"You can't take these distinctions to the bank, because the Justice Department can change your status whenever it wants to," Brand said. "To me, it is academic. Burns is under investigation."

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