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So what's the difference between former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns and the man who replaced him, current Sen. Jon Tester? 

Tester now finds himself embroiled in a controversy in his role as the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a political fundraising group which helps elect Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

According to stories first reported in The Boston Globe and confirmed by The Billings Gazette, Tester accepted money from the Thornton Law Firm both for his own campaign and the Senate election committee. 

Burns was linked to accepting donations from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Both situations — Thornton and Abramoff — are the subject of federal investigations.

So that has some people wondering: If Burns was the subject of a federal investigation — and it cost him his political career — what about Tester?

The Thornton Law Firm scandal hasn't completely played out yet, but there are two key differences to remember about Tester and Burns.

First, the Thornton Law Firm is under investigation for a straw-man scheme in which lawyers in the firm are accused of cutting high-dollar campaign checks to the DSCC and then soon after being reimbursed for the same amount or close to it. That kind of political contribution is illegal.

Tester, for his part, assumed that these checks he collected there were being made by lawyers sympathetic to Democratic causes. And, as the head of the DSCC, fundraising is part of the job.

Burns, on the other hand, also accepted funds from Abramoff and his clients, nearly $150,000.

This was the first key difference between the two cases: Abramoff and his team were lobbyists — Burns knew where the money was coming from. And it's not too hard to think that if a lobbyist spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on a senator from Montana, there's probably something in it for them.

Tester accepted the money for himself and the DSCC, but he – by all accounts – did not know about the alleged check reimbursement. In other words, Tester apparently had no reason to believe after he left that the lawyers were being reimbursed through bonuses. Yet, Burns knew where his money was coming from — a lobbyist. 

Keep in mind, when the Justice Department investigated in 2007, it wasn't just investigating Abramoff, it was investigating Burns, too. No reporting to date indicates that Tester is under any kind of investigation. He just happened to be leading the DSCC at the time. Instead, the Justice Department is investigating Thornton, the law firm which reportedly had this shady practice, not Tester.

Also, it's important to remember that when the Justice Department was investigating Burns, the president of the United States was George W. Bush, a fellow Republican.

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It should also be noted that Burns was later cleared of wrongdoing, and under pressure, gave the money back. 

The nature of the investigation is also key to understanding the difference between the Burns of yesteryear and the Tester of today. What made the Burns situation problematic was the quid pro quo nature of the money. In other words, it seemed as if Burns accepted the money in exchange for doing a political favor. Remember Burns' puzzling fight to get a $3 million construction grant for the relatively wealthy Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, one of Abramoff's clients?

Burns' case is so different because it wasn't that he accepted money, but it appeared that the money might have been used to buy a political favor. 

Meanwhile, no one has linked Tester's accepted Thornton funds to any political project or favor. 

On Wednesday, the DSCC returned $267,000 "out of an abundance of caution," the DSCC spokeswoman said.

That was the right thing to do, and unfortunately, like Burns political pressure had to mount before it did what it should have done a week earlier. That seems like the only similarity.  

So far, history hasn't repeated itself. 

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