Charles S. Johnson HORSE SENSE
HELENA - U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns must have been choking on his Wheaties when he learned that a Washington group named him one of the "13 most corrupt members of Congress."
He angrily disputed the allegations as "downright misleading and maliciously false." His staff fired off an 18-page response to reporters suggesting the attack "borders on libel."
Burns denounced Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the group that called him corrupt, as "nothing but a group of partisan hacks doing the dirty work of Democrats."
Yet Burns, a former broadcaster, knows being branded one of the "13 most corrupt members of Congress" is a sticky phrase that will turn up countless times in TV and radio ads and direct mail by those opposed to his re-election. We may hear it as often as we hear Burns' trademark slogan, "You bet."
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, picked 11 Republicans and two Democrats as its 13 "most corrupt" members of Congress.
The report can be found at www.beyonddelay.org/.
The group's charges against Burns are nothing new. They're a rehash of what's already been reported by national and Montana newspapers earlier this year.
Here are the allegations:
Burns received $136,500 in campaign donations from now-indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his partner Michael Scanlon and their tribal clients. The Montana senator collected more money from Abramoff, Scanlon and their clients than any other member of Congress from 2001 to 2004. That is true, according to a Bloomberg News database.
The Washington group alleges that Abramoff's "largesse" to Burns appears to have paid off for the lobbyist's clients. It said Burns, as chairman of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, pressured the Interior Department to direct a $3 million federal grant intended for poor tribal schools to the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan, one of Abramoff's clients. With its resort with 4,700 slot machines, the tribe is one of the nation's wealthiest and gives each tribal member $70,000 a year. Stymied by the Interior Department, Burns instead earmarked the money for the Saginaw Chippewa in the 2004 spending bill, the group said.
The Washington group suggests that Burns' receipt of donations from Abramoff, Scanlon and their tribal clients may well violate a federal law prohibiting public officials from directly or indirectly demanding, seeking, receiving or agreeing to accept anything of value personally for any official act performed by the official.
In response, Burns said the request for the money for the school came initially not from Abramoff but in a 2002 letter from Michigan's two Democratic senators, Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin. It was written to then-Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Burns, ranking member of the subcommittee. When Republicans took over the Senate, Burns said, the request advanced on its merit, with the appropriations bill winning unanimous approval in committee and passing the full Senate 97-3.
What about Burns' charges that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is a Democratic front group? These kinds of groups bloom from both sides like the cherry blossoms in Washington every spring.
The organization's Web site bills itself as "a non-profit, progressive legal watchdog group dedicated to holding public officials accountable."
In recent years, nationally and in Montana, describing your group on the left as "progressive" is deemed more politically safe than calling yourself "liberal."
"We are progressive," said Naomi Seligman, the group's deputy director and a former spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana. "We do work within a larger progressive infrastructure."
Seligman suggested her group is the progressive counterweight to Judicial Watch, a group from the right that calls itself "a non-profit, public interest law firm dedicated to fighting government corruption." Judicial Watch was a key player in the push for President Clinton's impeachment.
"We've gone after a fair number of Democrats, even in this study," Seligman said.
Burns said the group's executive director, Melanie Sloan, is a former staff member of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Seligman replied that Sloan last worked for Schumer in 1994 and has never worked on his Senate staff. Sloan worked as an assistant U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia from 1998 to 2003.
Material provided by Burns shows that Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington received $10,000 from entertainer Barbra Streisand and $50,000 from the Arca Foundation, a group run by Democratic fundraiser Smith Bagley.
Contrary to Republican charges, Seligman said her group has not received money from billionaire George Soros, who helped fund the unsuccessful 2004 push to unseat Bush.
She called Burns' response a diversionary tactic.
"I understand facts are stubborn things," Seligman said. "I understand why he isn't answering the charges. He should be answering the charges, not slinging charges."
Charles S. Johnson is chief of the Gazette State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached at (800) 525-4920 or (406) 443-4920. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.