By Producer
NBC News
updated 1/18/2006 3:32:43 PM ET 2006-01-18T20:32:43

Montana Republican Senator Conrad Burns is having a hard time giving away campaign cash he received that was linked to indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

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In recognition that much of the money distributed by Abramoff had been siphoned from Native Americans, Burns had tried to give the money to Indians in his home state. However, a meeting Tuesday evening of the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council rejected Burns' donation of $111,000, which was made up of contributions from Abramoff, his associates and his tribal clients. Burns was present during some of the proceedings.

James Steele, chairman of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, would not elaborate as to why tribal leaders rejected the offer. However, tribal officials familiar with last night's vote said that they did not want to appear to have "bailed out the senator." They described the offer from Burns as being "tainted money."

Trying to make good
Instead, the officials said, Burns should return to money directly to the tribes from which it came. Back in December Burns said he would return about $150,000 that he received from Abramoff, his clients and associates.

Burns' Senate office today confirmed the council's rejection and offered no reaction or explanation. The office also reiterated that there is no investigation of the senator to their knowledge.

Super Bowl trip
Separately, a Montana newspaper on Wednesday reported claims by a former Burns chief of staff, Will Brooke, that Justice Department investigators are looking into a 2001 Super Bowl trip attended by two Burns staffers and organized by Abramoff.

"That whole trip has been the subject of investigation," the Billings Gazette quote Brooke as saying.

Brooke, reached by NBC, refused to comment on the article.  NBC has confirmed that Brooke quit Burns' staff in late 2003 to take a lobbying job with Abramoff's Greenberg Traurig firm.  Brooke now has a law office in Bozeman, Mont., and does lobbying for Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, a Washington lobby group.

According to the Gazette, Brooke went on Super Bowl trip with Ryan Thomas, a Senate staffer assigned to Burns' Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. NBC has confirmed that Thomas is still a staffer on the subcommittee. Thomas did not return calls for comment.

Poker chips
The newspaper reports that Brooke talked about the Department of Justice investigation in response to a question about $500 in poker chips Abramoff allegedly offered to staffers, such as Brooke, who attended the trip. The junket, according to the Gazette, also included a jaunt on an Abramoff-owned SunCruz gambling ship.

The Washington Post has reported the distribution of the chips, citing anonymous sources at the Justice Department. At the time, Abramoff, together with partners, owned the boat and several others around Florida.

Burns' Montana staff told NBC that the senator was not aware of the Super Bowl trip until after it happened and that it was Burns who wrote a letter to the Department of Justice asking them to investigate the trip and any other alleged improprieties.

Staffers also said that at the time the trip was represented as being paid by "tribal entities." Staffers say that Senate ethics rules allow "sovereign nations" to pay for certain travel. 

Burns has repeatedly said he is not a part of an ongoing Justice Department probe into lobbying and influence peddling involving campaign contributions, trips and other favors given to lawmakers and their staff in return for official acts.

Joel Seidman is an NBC News Producer based in Washington, D.C.


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