Federal Probe of Ex-Montana Senator Ends
Friday, January 4, 2008
The Justice Department has informed former senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) that it has closed its investigation of his dealings with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and will not bring criminal charges.
Burns, who works for a lobbying firm, narrowly lost his seat in 2006 because of political fallout over his dealings with Abramoff. A Justice Department spokesman said yesterday that prosecutors had notified Burns's attorney, Ralph J. Caccia, that "the department has concluded its investigation of former senator Burns."
Burns was a major beneficiary of campaign contributions from Abramoff's lobbying team and the casino-rich Indian tribes it represented, taking in more than $140,000, which he returned during the heat of his campaign. Several of Burns's Senate staff members accepted trips and gifts from Abramoff's lobbying team, and two went to work for him.
Federal prosecutors were investigating the pressure that Burns brought on the Interior Department to give a $3 million school-construction grant intended for poor Indian tribes to the wealthy Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, an Abramoff client. The Washington Post reported in 2005 that Burns pushed Interior to reverse its decision that the tribe did not qualify for the funds and that when the effort failed, he earmarked the money in a 2004 appropriations bill.
Unlike his staffers and some other members of Congress caught up in the Abramoff probe, Burns was never accused of accepting personal gifts or favors from the lobbyist, a key element in many of the prosecutions growing out the Abramoff investigation.
The Justice Department's wide Abramoff investigation has resulted in a dozen convictions or guilty pleas from lobbyists, congressional staffers, Interior officials and one member of Congress, former representative Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio).
But a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could impede remaining aspects of the investigation, Justice lawyers said in a petition two weeks ago. In a case growing from an FBI search of the congressional office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), Justice is seeking Supreme Court review of how far the "speech or debate" clause of the Constitution goes in insulating Congress members from legal action.
Because of the appeals court's ruling, the department told the high court, "investigations of corruption in the nation's capital and elsewhere will be seriously and perhaps fatally stymied."
Department lawyers were unavailable for comment yesterday on the effect of the decision on the Burns investigation.
Among the other inquiries affected by that decision are Abramoff-related investigations of Reps. John T. Doolittle (R-Calif.) and Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
Some members of Congress have asserted that because of the ruling, law enforcement officers cannot interview Capitol Hill staffers without the consent of their bosses, according to the Justice Department. Many current and former staffers have been interviewed, investigated and, in several instances, prosecuted as part of probes of Congress members.
Burns is associated with Gage, a D.C. lobbying firm founded by some of his former staffers. He acts as an adviser there rather than a lobbyist because he was subject to a one-year ban on lobbying after leaving the Senate. Neither he nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment yesterday.