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Tribal group refuses Burns donation

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Montana Republican Sen. Conrad Burns tried to give away
$111,000 in campaign contributions arranged by sullied lobbyist and
admitted felon Jack Abramoff, but the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders
Council refused the tainted money.

In its rejection opinion, the council said it would not stand in the way if
any tribe wanted to exercise its sovereignty and negotiate for the money,
but the council itself was not interested in the funds.

Tribal Leaders Council Chairman Jay St. Goddard said individual tribes
would be willing to accept the money, but not through the council.

A spokesman for Burn's re-election campaign office said officials had
scheduled a meeting with a tribal council, but was unclear which one.

Burns received a total of nearly $150,000 in campaign contributions from
tribes across the country, as arranged by Abramoff. Burns' campaign
officials want to return the money to the tribes that made the donations,
but so far no funds have been returned, according to tribal officials and
Burns' campaign headquarters.

It appears that legal glitches prevent the return of tribal contributions
from his re-election account. Those legal bumps must be cleared first,
campaign officials claim.

While the Abramoff scandal takes on national significance, tribes could be
implicated through misunderstandings.

"I think there could be a backlash on tribes unless we run some
interference," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in
North Dakota and former chairman of the National Congress of American
Indians. "I think the tribes will have to come out in the press and the
media and let America know he was crook."

Plans are under way to make the issue public on behalf of Indian country. A
conference for the mainstream media has been scheduled for March 2 and 3 in
Washington, D.C.

"There is a mode of thinking out there. It wouldn't take much more than
another Time Magazine article that misrepresents us," Hall said.

Abramoff's six one-time tribal clients were bilked of millions, and Hall
said the tribes thought they knew him.

"We don't know Jack," Hall wrote in a column printed by the San Francisco
Chronicle.

Now the scramble is on to give back the money.

Burns' staff was given the task of finding a suitable charitable
organization to receive the funds. Burns said he told his staff to meet
with the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council to find a charity; instead,
the offer was made to the council and rejected.

Mark Baker, Burns' campaign chairman, said the decision was made to go to
the tribal council for direction.

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The legal problems faced by the return of the funds involve donations
placed in a soft money, non-federal account that was closed as a result of
the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 (also known as the
McCain-Feingold bill, after its sponsors, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.).

Presently the Chippewa-Cree tribes at Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana,
the Fort Peck Tribes and the Northern Arapaho Tribe of Wyoming may be
willing to accept some of the contributions.

The Chippewa-Cree tribes went on public record in support of Burns' work
with Indian country. The Chippewa-Cree and two other tribes in Montana
support Burns' work, which benefits the Montana tribes, and are reluctant
to jeopardize any relationship with the senator. A press release said that
Burns has arranged funding for education, law enforcement, water rights,
tribal colleges and health care over the years.

Burns was also a lead player in support of a program that allowed unused
housing at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls to be distributed to the
tribes.

Not all Montana tribes are Burns supporters. The Blackfeet at Browning,
Mont., are angry at him for arranging for $3 million in federal funding for
a school at the Saginaw Chippewa reservation in Michigan. The Saginaw
Chippewa Tribe, a successful gaming tribe, owns the Soaring Eagle Casino
and Resort and was an Abramoff client.

Carol Juneau, Blackfeet and a representative in the Montana Legislature,
said the $3 million should have been directed toward Indian education in
Montana and not the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe.

The Blackfeet and other Montana nations have asked for funding to build new
and remodel existing school facilities.

The Abramoff scandal could become a setback for Indian country's lobbying
efforts, which largely focus on obtaining health care, housing, facilities,
water, higher education, roads and other basics.

"Others lobby for special interests. We are following the rules," Hall
said.

According to Burn's campaign office, staff members are trying to contact
tribes in Michigan, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi to return the
contributions.

In a Dec. 15 statement issued by Burns, he stated that all campaign
contributions associated with Abramoff would be returned to the original
donor.

Burns, meanwhile, maintains that he has done nothing wrong and denied any
knowledge that he is under investigation. He blames his problems over the
Abramoff issue on the Montana Democrats and calls it a political move.

Burns said in a new campaign ad that he was not influenced by Abramoff.
Burns' ad campaign is designed to distance himself from the Abramoff
scandal.

The Tigua Tribe of El Paso, Texas, had $2,000 in campaign contributions
returned by Burns campaign; a partial return from their total $20,000
contribution. The rest of the money will be tied up until the Federal
Elections Commission can make a determination whether to allow a release of
funds from Burns' closed soft money accounts.

The Bush campaign returned $6,000 to the Saginaw Chippewa. Republicans are
pushing the president to disclose any information about contact with
Abramoff.