Montana Ads Target Burns's Ties to Abramoff

Democrats are running an ad in Montana scorching GOP Sen. Conrad Burns for taking $136,000 from Jack Abramoff, the well-connected lobbyist in trouble for huge casino tribe billings. Burns got a $3 million appropriation for an Abramoff client. The Republicans are crying foul, saying he did it to help two Democratic senators.

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Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff was indicted today on federal bank fraud charges. Abramoff, formerly a close associate of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, also remains under investigation for his lobbying activities. And not surprisingly, Democrats want to make him and the controversy a campaign issue, and they're targeting Montana Senator Conrad Burns, who's up for re-election next year. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY reporting:

Abramoff made most of his fortune lobbying for Indian tribes. In one three-year stretch, he and a consultant sidekick billed their tribal clients for more than $80 million. They once lobbied against a tribe's interests, won and then got the tribe to hire them to undo the damage. It all adds up to the biggest Washington lobbying scandal in decades, which is why the Montana Democratic Party rolled out an attack ad this week against Senator Burns.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: In Washington, he takes $136,000 from notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff, now under federal investigation, then Burns fights for and passes legislation to get Abramoff's client, a wealthy Michigan Indian tribe, $3 million.

OVERBY: But even before the ad hit the airwaves, Republican lawyers told Montana TV stations to air it at their own legal risk.

Mr. MARK BAKER (Chairman, Friends of Conrad Burns): Clearly, the ad was concocted with lies and misinformation.

OVERBY: That's Mark Baker, chairman of Friends of Conrad Burns, the re-election committee. Now this gets into the fine art of crafting an attack ad. Consider the first of the two allegations.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: He takes $136,000 from notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

OVERBY: Burns clearly took the contributions, but to be precise, the money came from Abramoff and lawyers who worked with him and the clients. So that statement was over the line, as far as Monty Wallis was concerned. He's the general manager of KTVQ in Billings, Montana. The Democrats rewrote it. Either way, Burns is still one of Congress' top recipients of money from Abramoff and his clients.

Then there's charge number two, that Burns earmarked a $3 million appropriation for one beneficiary...

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

Unidentified Announcer: ...Abramoff's client, a wealthy Michigan Indian tribe...

OVERBY: ...a beneficiary many miles from Montana. The Republican argument here is, yes, Burns did it, but in league with Democratic senators, not Jack Abramoff.

Here's what actually happened. In 2003, the Saginaw Chippewa Indians asked Michigan's two Democratic senators to help get federal funding for a new school. The senators asked the appropriate subcommittee, which happens to be chaired by Conrad Burns. But strangely, the earmark didn't get into the 2003 budget. The Michigan senators dropped the request after that. But in the next year's budget, there was the earmark. If that was Abramoff's doing, there are no fingerprints on the appropriation, never mind that Abramoff was lobbying for the tribe and steered all that campaign money to Burns and had other ties to Burns' office. At KTVQ, Monty Wallis says this second allegation looks solid.

Mr. MONTY WALLIS (General Manager, KTVQ): I think it shows the state of politics in this country today and the part that money really plays in what happens in Washington, DC.

OVERBY: Republicans say they'll press for more revisions in the ad. Dennis McDonald, chair of the Montana Democratic Party, says there won't be any.

Mr. DENNIS McDONALD (Chairman, Montana Democratic Party): That's all we changed; that's all we're going to change. The thrust of the story hasn't changed a bit.

OVERBY: But as a campaign strategy, using Abramoff to attack any Republican incumbent may be a long shot. Independent campaign analyst Charlie Cook says Burns is more vulnerable than most other members of Congress, but still...

Mr. CHARLIE COOK (Campaign Analyst): Because Montana's such a conservative and Republican place, Democrats can't run on ideology or partisanship. They've got to focus on things that might offend, you know, moderates, conservatives, liberals, everybody.

OVERBY: But Democrats sense an opportunity here. So far four candidates are vying for the chance to challenge Burns. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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