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If it walks like a duck…

Sen. Conrad Burns just can’t seem to get his reform act together.

You’d think the guy who took more money from clients of felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff than any other member of Congress would be a little bit circumspect about consorting with lobbyists, but apparently not. Because, to celebrate his 71st birthday, the Montanan has agreed to allow himself to be feted at a fundraiser sponsored by – you guessed it – a D.C. lobbying firm!

Call us wild-eyed idealists, but in the midst of the largest congressional corruption scandal in decades, we believe this kind of behavior just doesn't cut it any more. So Public Citizen is challenging the senator to live up to some of his own expressed reform ideas. We are further calling on him to move beyond those modest proposals, and recognize that his birthday fundraiser highlights some of the most deeply entrenched problems that have brought on the current lobbyist corruption scandal.

In particular, we are calling upon Burns to honor the spirit of the lobbyist reform legislation he himself has sponsored, by promptly disclosing the amount collected at the fundraiser and how much is being contributed by individual lobbyists, as well as disclosing which of the lobbyists attending have come through the “revolving door” between government and lobbying firms. The firm sponsoring the event, Cassidy & Associates, has been the top pure lobbying firm in D.C. for three years running. And it has made its business by exploiting revolving door connections to the hilt: 48 of its 49 current lobbyists once held jobs in the federal government, including folks like Gregg Hartley, a former top aide to Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri. (It’s also worth nothing here that two of Burn’s staff actually left his employ to work for Abramoff.)

We are also calling upon Burns to limit the amount of money he accepts from lobbyists – this is one of the key reforms demanded by the new ethics coalition here in Washington – and to remove lobbyists from senior positions in his fundraising operation. Currently, three top Burns fundraising spots are held by lobbyists, including his campaign chairman and his campaign finance and fundraising co-chairman. Mere disclosure of such links is all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that lobbyists and lobbying firm PACs who make donations or raise money still expect favors in return. So it is precisely this nefarious nexus between politicians, money and lobbyists that must be broken if there is to be any real reform – and Burns, his proposed reform legislation notwithstanding, continues to be one of the most glaring examples of the problem.

(We also encourage any Montanans reading this blog to contact Sen. Burns at 202-224-2644, and let him know he needs to clean up his act!)

Burns is also getting bashed back home, as Montana   newspapers and his Democratic opposition continue to hammer on his Abramoff connections. (For a good round up, check out today’s Daily Kos.) One story that stands out: a piece in the Missoulan on  Burns’ interesting voting record when it comes to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory and a hellhole of abusive labor practices that avoided Congressional reforms by paying Abramoff more than $1 million to “lobby” Congress. (Our old friend, Rep. Tom DeLay, figures prominently in this story as well.)

As it turns out, Burns met with a Marianas official, who was working closely with Abramoff, in the weeks before Burns received an Abramoff-related $5,000 contribution -after which, Burns reversed himself on a bill to vote with Abramoff clients who wanted to defeat the legislation. (And talk about peeling back layers of the onion: The Los Angeles Times has reported that the Marianas official in question, who is now cooperating with federal prosecutors in the corruption probe, won his bid for speaker of the Marianas House with the help of Abramoff's lobbying partner, Michael Scanlon, who has himself pled guilty to charges of bribery.)

In any event, Burns claims that his shifting votes had nothing to do with the money he received through Abramoff’s clients.

Just to be clear, as of this moment Burns has not been charged with a crime in the corruption probe. And we are not claiming to know that Burns sold his vote on the Northern Mariana Islands issue. Or that his numerous, intimate ties with lobbyists constitute outright corruption, or that he is offering quid pro quos in exchange for all the money they are raising for him.

But for goodness sake, Senator, people are entitled to draw a few conclusions without benefit of a criminal conviction. Someday a jury may get a chance to render its opinion, but for now, in the court of public opinion, if it walks like a duck and looks like a duck….

-Gordon Clark

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