I am not a target of an investigation and neither is Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. But is Sen. Burns “under investigation”? Is he a “subject” of an investigation? Over the weekend the Washington Post checked the investigatory lingo out and found that despite Burns’ protestations that he is not a “target” of any investigation he is still potentially in deep trouble.
The Post asked Stanley Brand, “a lawyer in Washington with decades of experience in defending prominent officials charged with corruption,” about the importance placed on the terms “target,” “subject,” and “under investigation”:
Brand said that distinctions in a federal criminal manual between a "target," someone the Justice Department has decided to seek charges against, and a "subject," someone under investigation who could be upgraded to a target, are largely meaningless in a practical sense.
"You can’t take these distinctions to the bank, because the Justice Department can change your status whenever it wants to," Brand said. "To me, it is academic. Burns is under investigation."
Burns’ position has taken on new importance in the wake of Rep. Bob Ney’s guilty plea, the reason being that Burns’ actions mimic those taken by the prison-bound Ney. So let’s round-up:
From 2000-2004 Burns received $146,000 from Jack Abramoff and his clients. During this time Burns pressured the Interior Department to give a $3 million grant to a wealthy Indian tribe in Michigan. It appears that Abramoff had the help of Burns’ chief-of-staff Will Brooke as evidenced in this Missoulian article:
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.
Three months after this email was sent Brooke left Burns’ office and took a job with Abramoff’s lobbying firm. Brooke was also privy to Abramoff’s largesse having gone to the 2001 Super Bowl in Tampa Bay on Abramoff’s dime and received free gambling chips at Abramoff’s SunCruz Casino boat line.
Burns was also a target of Abramoff’s campaign to save his client, the Northern Mariana Islands, from U.S. labor laws. In 2001 Burns opposed a bill that “would have strengthened U.S. oversight over the commonwealth’s labor and immigration laws” after receiving a $5,000 check from, and meeting with, officials from the islands. Burns had previously voted in favor of a similar measure.
All of these actions fit directly into the pattern of activity that led Bob Ney to plead guilty. Campaign contributions were one of the “things of value” that Ney received from Abramoff. That does not look good for the other members of Congress who, like Burns, remain under investigation. Ney’s chief-of-staff, Neil Volz, jumped from Capitol Hill to Abramoff’s law firm just like Will Brooke. After looking at the facts it’s understandable why federal investigators would be interested.
Aside from Burns there is one other lawmaker whose interactions with Abramoff follow the same pattern as Ney’s: Rep. John Doolittle. His story can wait for another time.