New scandals worse than Abramoff for Conrad Burns
by blogswarm, Mon Mar 06, 2006 at 02:29:47 PM EST
In 1988, Montana elected an AM radio rustler from Missouri to the United States Senate. Conrad Burns had won his seat on the promise that he would only serve two terms to avoid being corrupted by Washington. Many consider an incumbent most vulnerable during his campaign for re-election and Democrats united around Jack Mudd, a blue suit/red tie candidate who was Dean of the Law School and who lost by 24 pts. In 2000, Burns was considered quite safe as a Republican incumbent in a red state, yet an upstart citizen combined authenticity, straight talk, and bold populism to take 10,000 voters from Burns for a total of 70,000 more votes than Mudd (resulting in Burns winning by a mere 4pts.). In 2006, Democrats have a unique opportunity to get the magic 225,000 votes necessary to win the Senate seat, thanks in part to Conrad Burns.
If you don't think Burns is in MAJOR trouble, an examination of yesterday's news will probably change your mind. This is a longer post, focusing on the issues mentioned in Sunday's newspapers, specifically the Lee Newspapers story Lobbyist Giacometto heads Burns nonprofit, a piece by Jennifer McKee and Noelle Straub titled, Study: Burns tied to lobbyists and the Richard Simon and Mary Curtius story, Lawmakers Embrace Lobbyist Cash. Those in the national media focus upon Burns being the one Senator with the most liability when it comes to Jack Abramoff. But yesterday's Sunday papers looked at three other scandals that paint the portrait of Conrad Burns having become everything he feared when he promised to only serve two terms.
Conrad Burns and Leo Giacometto
While Giacometto is quite well know in Montana, his 15 minutes of internet fame arrived when his "sleaze" hit the front page of Daily Kos last October. He is the subject of the first article, from Lee Newspapers which includes (with Sunday circulation), the Billings Gazette (52,765), Missoulian (34,541), Helena Independent Record (14,878), Butte Standard (14,402) and headlined Lobbyist Giacometto heads Burns nonprofit:
WASHINGTON (LEE) -- From 1995 to 1998, former Alzada rancher Leo Giacometto worked as Sen. Conrad Burns' chief of staff in Washington, D.C.
Six years later, after Giacometto had quit to work as a lobbyist, Burns called on him again.
In a move that Burns' office describes as innocuous and at least one observer described as ethically problematic, Burns proposed forming a non-profit group with Giacometto in 2003. The group, started with $100 from Giacometto's personal bank account and run out of his D.C. lobbying firm, is called the U.S.-Asia Network and Burns, its chairman, has described the outfit as one of his top priorities.
Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said Burns' involvement with the group is unusual.
"It presents some problems because Burns is aligning himself with what is essentially a trade association run by lobbyists,'' he said.
It gets stickier because Burns chairs the Communications Subcommittee and the web surrounding Giacometto's nonprofit includes Nextel, AT&T, and Qualcomm.
The group was formed to promote international trade with an emphasis on high-tech and telecom, according to a Burns newsletter. Giacometto's clients include communications companies such Nextel and AT&T. Burns sits on the Commerce Committee and through 2004 chaired its Communications Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over telecommunications law.
Records show the group has little money and has hosted a handful of events, including one trip to South Korea and a Washington reception boasting presidential adviser Karl Rove as guest speaker. While run out of Giacometto's firm, Gage, the network's events are paid for by cellular phone and communications giant Qualcomm, said Mike Rawson, another former Burns staffer who quit to lobby with Giacometto and is now head of the U.S.-Asia Network. In 2003, an affiliated group paid to send Rawson, then a Burns staffer, to a U.S.-Asia Network-sponsored event in South Korea.
Here is the interesting thing about a scandal involving Leo Giacometto, while he was Chief of Staff for Burns, he is also great friends with Montana's Republican Congressman, Dennis Rehberg. Giacometto is the vector when plotting GOP scandals.
Burns, who continues to serve as chairman of the network, has repeatedly called it one of his top technology priorities.
Robert Arensberg, another Gage lobbyist who once served as a Burns fundraiser, serves as secretary and treasurer of the network.
In 2003, the network helped organize a Capitol Hill panel discussion about technology issues in Asia. In 2004, it arranged a trip to Kazakhstan. Burns, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., Giacometto and a Qualcomm lobbyist attended, among others.
Leo Giacometto's US-Asia Network trip to Kazakhstan was instant lore in Montana politics. Upon return to the US, a diplomat was so shocked by what happened that the details were emailed to Roll Call, which soon hit the Montana Press. When Democrats filed a FOIA request to find out what really happened, the Missoulian reported:
Bob Ream, who faxed the request under the Freedom of Information Act to the U.S. State Department, said Montanans have a right to know if Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., was drunk and rude while visiting with Kazakhstan's dignitaries over Memorial Day weekend.
Ream also specifically inquired in the letter about Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Washington, D.C. lobbyist and consultant Leo Giacometto, a former U.S. marshal for Montana and state legislator.
An anonymous e-mail recently circulated in Washington, D.C., and Montana political circles accused Rehberg of falling off a horse while intoxicated and also claimed that he mocked Kazakhstan's traditional dress. Rehberg, Burns, Giacometto and other members of the delegation deny the allegations.
Rehberg is an accomplished rider, was it the booze that made him fall off his horse?
Rehberg said the accident occurred when he lost his balance while dismounting a horse. Burn said Rehberg got bucked off the horse, while Rehberg's chief of staff said another rider rode too close to Rehberg while he was dismounting and scraped the congressman out of his stirrup.
Burns' press secretary, Donovan, said the accident happened in the evening after dinner while Rehberg repeatedly said the mishap occurred in the afternoon.
And the Washington D.C. newspaper Roll Call quoted Rehberg as saying he wasn't "comfortable" with the local Kazakh taking the reins of his horse, so he "fell back and sat down."
Ream, who called the differences in the accounts "astounding," said Montanans need to know what actually happened.
This isn't the first time Rehberg has been stung in the press for a Giacometto junket. In fact, a year later Denny Rehberg ammended his disclosure reports to clarify that Giacometto didn't pay for a Vegas junket.
But back to yesterday's Lee Newspapers story, who is helping investigate the scandal?
The U.S.-Asia Network took down its Web site late last year after Matt Singer, a Montana Internet columnist, began writing on-line essays about the group. Giacometto said the timing was coincidental and that the group had recently named new officers and wanted to update the site. The site remained inactive as of last week.
Many of you know Singer who posts here under the name of his blog, Left in the West. Back to that Vegas junket, which some might think is odd because it involves space travel and Montana GOP hacks. But US-Asia Next isn't the only new scandal emerging, Singer has also been following the Inland Northwest Space Alliance, which ties up a lot of loose ends:
Several weeks ago, a man named George Bailey wrote a letter to the editor that appeared in several Montana newspapers defending the character of Conrad Burns and dismissing critics of Conrad.
The letters received a quick response in the form of a second letter to the editor from Jim Farrell, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party. Farrell's letter pointed out that Bailey was not a distinterested party or merely even an old friend of Conrad Burns, but someone with a clear financial conflict of interest when it comes to vouching for Burns' character.
Specifically, George Bailey is the executive director of the Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA), a Missoula-based 501c3 (charitable or educational non-profit) that has received over $5 million in federal earmarked appropriations, all lined up by Conrad Burns' office. INSA employs former Burns chief of staff Leo Giacometto as one of its lobbyists (another INSA lobbyist, one of Giacometto's partners, Robert Arensberg, figures in to this story later). Giacometto became briefly famous in Montana for his role in allegedly seeking to cover-up the drunk driving accident in which Martz's chief policy advisor killed the majority leader of the Montana House, but he has a long history and is well-known as one of the shadier players in Montana politics.
The relationship doesn't end there. INSA employs a number of people with close connections to both Conrad Burns and U.S. Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-MT), including former staff and spouses of current staff. All told, INSA staff have donated roughly $15,000 of their salaries into Burns' campaign coffers. In other words, Burns lines up federal money, which pays the salaries of staff, who donate to Burns.
But the connections don't end here. While looking further into connections between Conrad Burns and George Bailey, I came across the U.S.-Asia Network (the organization's website has been removed from the internets since I first wrote about this organization). The Network's board consists of three people: George Bailey, Leo Giacometto (who also serves as CEO of the Network), and Robert Arensberg (Giacometto's lobbying partner, he also serves as President and COO of the Network). Conrad Burns serves as the Honorary Chairman, along with three Korean politicians.
We are sure to hear more about this scandal now that the Board of Regents is pushing for an Independent audit.
Leo Giacometto is a lobbyist in one scandal that is getting audited and he is Chairman of the Board of US-Asia Next (with Conrad Burns serving as Honorary Chairman). But it doesn't end there, Leo Giacometto was VP of the Montana Majority Fund at the center of the corruption scandal that forced Montana's last Republican Governor from office. That scandal was undercovered with research into a MMF meeting that resulted in the death of Republican Majority Leader Paul Sliter.
Conrad Burns and Lobbyists
The next important article that broke yesterday also ran in Lee Newspapers under the headline, Study: Burns tied to lobbyists:
On July 31, 2005, Montana native Randy Popelka quit his job as a vice-president of Van Scoyoc Associates, a major Washington, D.C., lobbying firm. The next day, he went to work as legislative director for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont.
A study of Montana's two senators -- Democrat Max Baucus and Republican Conrad Burns -- shows that while both lawmakers have lost staff to lobbying jobs and accepted lobbyist donations, only Burns has hired lobbyists for such key positions as legislative director and campaign chairman. He has also started a nonprofit group with lobbyists.
While such practices are perfectly legal, their ethical implications have come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.
Lobbyists and lawmakers serve two different masters: Lobbyists are hired by private companies to influence lawmakers, while lawmakers are elected to do the people's work.
Indeed, but during Burns long stay in Washington, DC, he seems to have forgotten that. The story looks at some of the individuals involved, starting with Mark Baker:
Helena lawyer and registered lobbyist Mark Baker is heading up Burns' 2006 re-election campaign and served early on as a spokesman for the campaign. Baker is also a former Burns staffer, having worked for the senator off and on since 1989. He left in 1998 as Burns' legislative director
Baker lobbies as part of his own firm, Anderson & Baker law firm in Helena, and with the D.C. firm of Denny Miller Associates.
Anderson & Baker has reported just over $3 million in federal lobbying income since 1999, records show. At least $2 million came from global telecommunications companies such as AT&T and MCI and the National Cable Television Association.
During much of that time, Burns was either chairman or ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications, where many laws dealing with telecommunications begin -- and can die. Today, the Communications Subcommittee has been absorbed into the full Commerce Committee, of which Burns is a member.
Additionally, Baker was President of the Montana Majority Fund and the uproar over the scandal forced him to resign as chief lawyer for the Montana GOP.
The article looks at Giacometto, and then Randall Popelka:
Randall Popelka worked in Burns' Senate office for seven years on trade, tax and transportation issues before leaving in early 2003. With the lobbying firm Van Scoyoc Associates, the Billings native lobbied for a number of Montana clients including the city of Billings, Billings Clinic and other Billings and Butte companies.
He also lobbied for national groups like the American Small Manufacturers Coalition. Popelka resigned from Van Scoyoc last July and rejoined Burns as legislative director.
Between 2003 and 2005, Popelka donated nearly $5,000 to Burns' election accounts.
Van Scoyoc is Burns' 10th-largest contributor, giving $15,750 between 2001 and 2006, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
And Will Brooke, who worked for Greenberg Traurig during the Jack Abramoff era:
Bozeman lawyer Will Brooke worked as Burns' chief of staff from the end of 2000 to the end of 2003, when he quit to take a job lobbying with the Greenberg Traurig firm.
Months after Brooke went to work for Greenberg Traurig, the lobbying excesses Jack Abramoff while at the firm were revealed. Brooke didn't stay long; by the end of the year, he was registered to lobby for another firm with no connections to Abramoff. He is also registered as a lobbyist with his own firm, the Bozeman-based Brooke Law Firm. Brooke has said he is voluntarily cooperating with federal investigators in the Abramoff probe.
Giacometto's name comes up again when they look at Stan Ullman:
Stan Ullman worked in Burns' Senate office for four years as a legislative assistant before becoming a lobbyist in 2002.
Ullman left Burns to join the lobbying and public relations firm Capitol Associates. He was registered as a lobbyist largely for health and educational institutions until 2004, when he joined Giacometto's firm, Gage LLC.
Ullman last year registered to lobby on his own. His clients included Salish Kootenai College and the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders. Burns tried to give the latter group about $100,000 in campaign donations he had received from Abramoff clients, but they refused to take the money.
Keep reading, there is more. Including Shawn Vassell, who has a resume reads like a full trip through the revolving door from Abramoff to Burns to Abramoff:
Shawn Vasell worked with Abramoff at Greenberg Traurig. He quit in 2002 to work as Burns' state director in Montana. After almost a year, he quit Burns' staff and went back to lobbying with Abramoff. Vasell now works as an in-house lobbyist for Hewlett Packard.
One more lobbyist and one more Giacometto reference:
Michael Rawson worked in Burns' Senate office for 10 years, from 1995 to 2005. He left Burns to become a lobbyist at Gage, Giacometto's firm.
Giacometto had hired Rawson to work for Burns in 1995, when Rawson started as a systems administrator, according to National Journal. Rawson rose to become a senior policy adviser in 2001 and served as the senator's telecommunications aide. At the time, Burns chaired the Communications Subcommittee.
He is now a registered lobbyist for communications companies including Nextel, MCI Worldcom Corp. and Vonage.
Upon joining Gage, Rawson also took over from Giacometto as the head of the U.S.-Asia Network.
Lobbyist money and Conrad Burns
The third major Sunday article was in the L.A. Times, headlined, Lawmakers Embrace Lobbyist Cash:
Also this weekend, lobbyists are among those at "Winterfest '06," where supporters of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) can ski and snowmobile at the exclusive Yellowstone Club in his home state.
What is this "exclusive Yellowstone Club"? The Sunday New York Times looks at developer Tim Blixseth:
Tim Blixseth, a 55-year-old self-made billionaire, is rarely seen wearing a tie, or even sporting a reasonably close shave, and yet he nonetheless conveys an impression of neatness and energetic efficiency. Frequently tan, always fit and compact, he makes a point of bounding up every flight of stairs he encounters, a policy that combines his two most salient qualities: boyish enthusiasm and a strong sense of discipline. Having made his fortune buying and selling timber properties, Blixseth, in the past seven years, has shifted the focus of his considerable energy to the luxury-resort business, starting with the world's only private golf and ski resort, the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont., which he conceived of, financed and built. More recently, he has taken his luxury real-estate aspirations global, which explains his near-constant tan, a result of his personally comparing and contrasting and scooping up extravagant properties in various Sun Belts around the world. The end result of his acquisitions, a collection of nine vacation properties that Blixseth plans to call Yellowstone Club World, will essentially be an opulent time-share program for the richest of the world's rich.
Blixseth is more of a taxpayer made billionaire for using congressional action to get rich. You see, back in the old days, the railroads were given checkboards of land in exchange for development. Of course, critters don't care much for invisible grid lines, neither does pollution, and nowhere were these problems more evident than Gallatin Canyon, just north of Yellowstone Park. So "land swapping" started, and of course has benefits and problems.
From High Country News:
There was an opportunity to end land-swapping in the Gallatin four years ago. The railroad's descendant, Plum Creek Timber, decided to sell off everything it still held here. Plum Creek was all about logging, and it didn't relate to what the Gallatin has become: Montana's most popular forest for recreation and real estate. So Plum Creek put more than 250 square miles up for sale - all the rest of the local checkerboard.
The Nature Conservancy negotiated to buy it all for something like $25 million, planning to spin off a green nonprofit corporation, a model for preserving jobs by milling trees from an eco-friendly harvest. Ted Turner, the local billionaire, pledged $10 million, interest-free, to back the Conservancy. In the end, the timber beasts couldn't come to terms with the tree-huggers and vice versa.
Instead, a partnership of speculators from Oregon swooped in and bought almost all the old railroad land. The speculators, doing business as Big Sky Lumber, are now multiplying their investment in a complicated series of more swaps and outright sales of some of the former public land back to the public.
Tim Blixseth was one of the partners of Big Sky Lumber and you might be surprised to know that you help provide him the vast weath he is now using for his exclusive resorts for the richest of the rich. In the Gallatin II swap, Big Sky Lumber traded back land it had logged and made a huge fortune.
The second stage would swap $40 million to $50 million in public cash, timber rights and assorted public land around Montana for as much as 100 square miles of the Big Sky Lumber checkerboard here. In the process, Big Sky Lumber would be making something like $75 million on its reported investment of $26 million. When the swapping dust settled, Big Sky Lumber would still hold 75 square miles in solid blocks in the Gallatin, including more than 30 square miles in Big Sky and another 35 square miles near the Bridger ski area, worth at least another $50 million to $100 million.
Big Sky Lumber knows how to work the system. It cuts the trees on a square, and then swaps it to the public for another square that can be logged and swapped back or sold.
Asked how he'd like to be portrayed, Tim Blixseth, the front man for Big Sky Lumber, says, "A poor kid who was raised on welfare, who is still one of the little guys (at heart) - I can go into a cowboy bar with my T-shirt and boots on and be as accepted as the next guy."
In a new kind of range war, Ted Turner, who wanted to retire the checkerboard without making a profit off the taxpayers, has blasted Blixseth, saying, "I've made my money by creating things, not by sticking somebody."
Blixseth stuck it to the taxpayers, and now has plenty of money to build his dream where the richest of the rich don't have to worry about vacationing with people who are only millionaires. And now Blixseth has let the lobbyist come and enjoy the playground for the richest of the rich, in return for money to help give Conrad Burns a fourth term.
Most election analysts and pundits think Jack Abramoff will bring down Conrad Burns. But new, local scandals could be even more toxic.
Tags: Conrad Burns, Dennis Rehberg, george baily, Inland Northwest Space Alliance, Jack Abramoff, leo giacometto, Mike Baker, Mike Rawson, MT-Sen, Randall Popelka, Robert Arensberg, Shawn Vassell, Stan Ullman, U.S.-Asia Network, Will Brooke (all tags)