WASHINGTON – Sen. Conrad Burns is taking the offensive in the Justice Department investigation of Jack Abramoff as new information surfaces about Burns' involvement with the lobbyist and his clients.
The Montana Republican and his staff met Abramoff's lobbying team on at least eight occasions and collected $12,000 in donations around the time that Burns took legislative action favorable to Abramoff's clients in the Northern Mariana Islands, records show.
The 2001 donations to Burns included money directly from Abramoff and a key garment company executive in the Marianas who was part of the coalition paying Abramoff's firm to fend off stronger U.S. regulations on the Pacific islands.
In addition, two Burns staffers had accepted a trip arranged by Abramoff to attend the Super Bowl in Florida earlier that year.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Abramoff, already charged with fraud in a separate Florida case, won any undue influence through donations and favors.
Burns, who is up for re-election to a fourth term in 2006, said he hasn't been contacted by federal investigators in the Abramoff probe or received any subpoenas. On Nov. 28, Burns wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, urging that his conduct be reviewed so he could be cleared of wrongdoing.
"I welcome your thorough and expeditious review of this matter so that it may be disposed of officially once and for all and these outrageous and wrongful allegations may be put to rest before we get into the 2006 re-election cycle," Burns wrote.
In 2001, Burns served on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was considering legislation the Marianas opposed. He also ran a Senate appropriations subcommittee that controlled spending for the Interior Department, which regulates U.S. territories, including the islands.
On May 23 of that year, Burns voted against a bill in the Senate Energy Committee that would have phased out a nonresident contract worker program benefiting the Marianas' garment industry. The committee approved the bill, but it never saw action on the Senate floor. In 1999, it had moved through the same committee by voice vote without objections from Burns.
Burns' office told The Associated Press this week that he could not recall why he didn't object to the bill in 1999 but that his opposition in 2001 was prompted by a report indicating changes to immigration laws could hurt the islands' economy. He said it wasn't influenced by Abramoff or any donations.
Abramoff's billing records, which the AP obtained from the U.S. territorial islands under an open records request, show that in the three months before the vote, the lobbyist's team met twice with Burns and several more times with his Senate aides to discuss Marianas issues.
One of those meetings, between Burns' staff and Abramoff associate Todd A. Boulanger, occurred just six days before the vote.
Abramoff donated $5,000 to Burns' political action committee in February, just before the meetings started. His firm, Greenberg Traurig, donated $2,000 to Burns in March, and Eloy Inos of Saipan donated $5,000 in April.
The Inos donation was first reported by Lee Newspapers on Dec. 3. Inos listed his employer as Tan Holdings, a member of the Saipan Garment Manufacturers Association, another Abramoff client.
Burns defended the meetings, saying they are part of the democratic process.
"Advocates, paid and unpaid, exercising their right to petition their government provide information on many issues but you always know that they are representing a particular position based upon their client or issue preference," he said Dec. 5.
In all, AP stories over the past few months have documented how more than four dozen lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, took actions favorable to Abramoff clients around the time that they received large donations from the lobbyist and his clients.
Burns received about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff, his firm and his clients between 2001 and 2004.
In addition to the Marianas, Burns wrote a letter backing an Indian school building program sought by Abramoff's tribal clients and helped arrange for Congress to provide money for it.
The billing records detail several meetings regarding the Marianas.
For instance, Abramoff associates met at least five times with Burns' staff as well as members of the Interior appropriations subcommittee staff he oversaw in spring 2001. At least some of the meetings, the billing records say, involved a federal matching funds program that helped the island with local construction projects.
The Marianas wanted relief from a requirement that the islands match some of the federal money they received.
In June, Burns' Senate subcommittee approved a committee report including a provision that urged the Interior Department to re-evaluate the requirement, citing hard economic times in the islands.
Burns spokesman James Pendleton said he doesn't know whether Burns inserted the provision, but he did support it.