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Ex-Burns aide talks to Justice
Billings Gazette
Gazette State Bureau
December 12, 2005

HELENA - A former top aide to U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., who quit to work at the firm of indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff said Monday he is talking to Justice Department investigators as part of the agency's continuing probe of Abramoff's activities.

Reached at his Bozeman office, Will Brooke, Burns' onetime chief of staff, said he has hired a lawyer in the matter.

"I'm not concerned about anything," said Brooke, who is a lawyer. "I just wanted to make sure somebody was there to hear the interview."

Brooke said he is participating in the investigation to provide information. He has not been told that he might be a subject of the investigation, he said.

Burns is one of four lawmakers publicly linked to the ongoing Abramoff lobbying probe.

Burns received almost $150,000 in campaign donations, more than any other lawmaker, from Abramoff clients between 1999 and 2004, a Washington Post tally published Monday shows. Burns' role in securing federal money and help for Abramoff clients has been the subject of controversy.

Burns has said the Justice Department has never contacted his office for its investigation and that he has not hired a lawyer to represent him in the matter.

Brooke said he contacted the Justice Department and that investigators did not seek him.

"This has been voluntary and wide-open," he said. "I don't feel there was any wrongdoing here. I'm trying to give them anything and everything that is helpful in their course of investigating Abramoff."

Brooke served as Burns' chief of staff from November 2000 until the end of 2003. Brooke flew on Abramoff's corporate jet to the 2001 Super Bowl to attend the game at Abramoff's invitation. The trip was paid for by Abramoff's lobbying clients.

From 2001 to 2003, Abramoff's tribal clients gave $129,000 to Burns and his political action committees.

Brooke quit his post on Burns' staff in December 2003 to work at Abramoff's lobbying firm, where he was employed in 2004. The hiring occurred shortly after Burns helped secure a controversial $3 million grant for one of Abramoff's tribal clients, the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of Michigan.

Brooke started his own lobbying firm, based in Bozeman, earlier this year.

Abramoff and the high fees he charged newly wealthy Indian tribes is the subject of a U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation. The Justice Department is also investigating Abramoff's dealings with lawmakers.

The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have both reported that Burns is one of the lawmakers the Justice Department is looking into. Both papers cited anonymous sources. There has been no official announcement that Burns is under investigation.

Burns' possible connections with Abramoff were first raised in March when The Washington Post reported that Burns was influential in getting the $3 million school construction grant for the Saginaw Chippewa. The tribe is one of the wealthiest in the country because of its tribally owned casino. Burns' support for the $3 million came over the objections of the Interior Department, which concluded the school was not eligible for the grant money.

Burns has repeatedly said that neither Abramoff's influence nor the campaign contributions of his clients had any bearing on Burns' support of the $3 million grant. Burns has said he supported the $3 million appropriation at the request of Michigan's senators, both Democrats.

However, e-mails released last month in the Senate's investigation show that the lobbyist sought Burns' support for the grant.

In one e-mail, Abramoff said he would get Burns to call Interior Secretary Gale Norton about the money. Abramoff said the idea came from Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles.

"(Griles) told me to have Burns call Norton and I asked Will to get that done, and he will," read an e-mail Abramoff sent to co-worker Todd Boulanger on Sept. 15, 2003.

The e-mails don't further identify the "Will" whom Abramoff asked to "get that done." Will Brooke was Burns' chief of staff at the time.

Burns spokesman James Pendleton said he couldn't talk about Brooke's participation in the Justice Department probe because Brooke has not worked for Burns for two years. He said it's not unusual for Burns to call the Interior secretary, given that he's chairman of the Senate committee that controls the department's budget.

Pendleton said the e-mail does not say Burns called Norton at the behest of the lobbyist.

"There is no end result indicated," Pendleton said. "It only says that Abramoff wanted Burns to make a particular phone call and would ask 'Will' to make that happen."

Brooke did not respond to inquiries as to whether he might be the "Will" referred to in the e-mail.

Regardless, Pendleton said, a lobbyist's wish that a Senate staffer do something is not proof that it actually happened.

"Senator Burns does not make calls on behalf of lobbyists to anyone," Pendleton said.

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