By Alexander Bolton - 08/02/06 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics has decided not to take action on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, irking at least one senator in the middle of allegations of impropriety: Conrad Burns (R-Mont.).
Burns, who is in a tough reelection race and has been attacked for links to Abramoff, said he had asked the committee for a letter clearing him of wrongdoing in his dealings with Abramoff. The committee refused the request because of a Justice Department investigation, though there has been scant suggestion that Burns is a target.
“Their comeback to us was that as long as the Abramoff case is before Justice, they can’t do anything,” said Burns, who added, “That’s a feeble excuse.”
Such a letter would clear Burns of charges that he acted improperly by accepting campaign contributions from Abramoff and his associates or by pushing legislation that benefited Abramoff’s clients.
Burns said he asked for the letter in the spring.
His request indicates how much pressure he has felt back home because of the scandal. Other lawmakers who have been linked by opponents to the disgraced lobbyist said they saw no need to ask for an ethics-panel opinion.
Democrats have blasted Burns for his ties to Abramoff and are expected to do so again after Labor Day when the campaign season intensifies. Last August, Democrats ran ads across Montana hammering Burns for accepting $136,000 from Abramoff and his associates and clients. The ads also criticized him for supporting a $3 million spending earmark benefiting a Michigan Indian tribe represented by Abramoff. Most recently, the Montana Democratic Party aired ads in June criticizing Burns for taking Abramoff-related funds.
Burns has given away about $150,000 in contributions from Abramoff and his associates. He has said that he worked on the earmark with Michigan’s Democratic senators, Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow. But the political taint remains.
Time magazine in April named Burns one of the five worst senators because of his links to Abramoff. Burns was also hurt in March when Vanity Fair magazine published an interview in which Abramoff said that his firm got “every appropriation” it wanted from the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Burns leads. Abramoff also said that Burns staffers used his restaurant Signatures “as their cafeteria.”
The controversy has allowed Burns’s Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jon Tester, to gain traction in the red state that President Bush carried by 20 points. Tester led by one percentage point in a recent Democratic poll.
A letter of exoneration would have made it more difficult for Democrats to continue to attack Burns. Without it, they will pound away.
“It’s safe to say that Burns’s relationship with Abramoff will continue to be an issue in the race,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokes-man Phil Singer said.
A source familiar with the dealings of the Ethics Committee said several senators, including Burns, wanted letters from the panel, but four lawmakers linked by opponents to Abramoff said they had not requested letters.
Democrats have also tried to link another vulnerable Republican, Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), to lobbying abuses in Washington, targeting him as a founder of the K Street Project, an effort to fill lobbying jobs with Republicans.
Santorum says he never met Abramoff and has no reason to try to clear his name through the Ethics Committee.
“I wouldn’t dignify Democrats trying to link me to something that I don’t have a link to,” he said.
Democratic Sens. Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), who Republicans say helped Indian tribes represented by Abramoff, all said they had not asked or thought of asking the committee for help.
Ethics Committee Chairman George Voinovich (R-Ohio) confirmed that his panel would not take any action until after the Justice Department completes its Abramoff probe, adding that the decision is “consistent with precedent.” But Voinovich declined to comment on Burns’s request.
The committee explained its position in a February letter to Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in response to his request for an ethics investigation of lawmakers who received contributions from Abramoff clients and took action benefiting them.
“As a matter of general practice, and absent special circumstances, where the committee has sufficient reason to believe that a law enforcement entity is conducting a criminal investigation in a matter that may overlap with matters of potential interest to the committee in carrying out its investigative authority, the committee will defer action on its part pending resolution of a criminal investigation,” Voinovich and the panel’s vice chairman, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), wrote in a letter to Wertheimer.
On the House side, Rep. Howard Berman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, said that his panel would not be inclined to grant letters approving past actions.
“The committee has a practice of giving advisory opinions of things that are going to happen. We don’t do advisory opinions of things that have already happened,” he said.