WASHINGTON – The Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council has rejected a $111,000 donation from the campaign of Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, with some saying the money is tainted because it originally came from lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his clients.
James Steele Jr., also chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said Tuesday evening that the council voted not to accept the donation, which was made up of contributions from Abramoff, his associates and his tribal clients.
Julia doney, president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council, a member of the tribal leaders council, said that some of the tribes are "tired of being used" and do not want to appear as if they are helping Burns with his political troubles.
In a statement Wednesday, Burns campaign chairman Mark Baker called the decision "disappointing" and said Burns would redirect most of the funds to the tribes that originally donated the money.
Burns, a Republican, said in December that he would give away and return $146,700 in donations in order to avoid the appearance of improper connections to Abramoff, who pleaded guilty two weeks ago to federal corruption charges.
Abramoff admitted to conspiring to defraud Indian tribes, which he sometimes directed to make contributions to lawmakers. Since his plea agreement, many lawmakers have rushed to return any money connected to him and his clients.
"To us it's tainted money," doney said Wednesday. "If he wanted us to have extra money he would have given it to us in other ways."
Burns returned some of the funds directly to Abramoff's tribal clients. But Baker, the campaign chairman, said last week that they were not able to return some of the larger donations — $20,000 from the Tigua tribe of El Paso, Texas, for example — because the account where the money landed has since been closed. A total of $111,000 was designated for the Montana-Wyoming tribal council instead.
Arturo Senclair, governor of the Tigua tribe, said then that Burns should have returned the money by donating to a charity that benefits the Tiguas, who hired Abramoff to help reopen a casino that had been closed down.
"If they feel that they have to give it back, they should give it back to the tribe," he said.
In his statement, Baker said Burns will contact the tribes that originally donated the campaign dollars "and determine from their counsel which charitable organization a comparable contribution should be given."
Remaining money, Baker said, will be divided among Montana's seven tribal colleges.
Montana-Wyoming council chairman Jay St. Goddard said there was intense debate among council members Tuesday, and that some tribes would have been willing to accept the money individually instead of through the council.
"They are looking not to jeopardize some of the things they have going with the senator," St. Goddard said of those tribes.
As part of a plea agreement, Abramoff agreed to share information with investigators about alleged bribes to lawmakers and their aides in a wide-ranging influence-peddling probe. The investigation could involve many aides and members of Congress, including Burns.
Burns has denied he was influenced by donations from Abramoff.