IMAGE: Sen. Conrad Burns
Manuel Balce Ceneta  /  AP file
The letter says convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff ‘effectively exerted implicit control’ over Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., pictured.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 10/31/2006 6:26:15 PM ET 2006-10-31T23:26:15

Staffers for Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., ate so much free sushi at disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s Washington restaurant that people joked that they would have “starved to death” without the lobbyist’s free meals, a Republican consultant says.

“Frankly, it was widely viewed in D.C. that Mr. Abramoff effectively exerted implicit control over Mr. Burns whenever he and his team needed to get something accomplished,” the consultant — Monty Warner, who says he’s still a friend of Abramoff’s — writes in a letter to the editor of the Whitefish Pilot, a weekly newspaper, which was obtained by NBC News.

“Mr. Burns’ staff — and perhaps Mr. Burns — were known to eat free sushi/meals often at Mr. Abramoff’s D.C. restaurant, Signatures, and the joke was if they didn’t, they would have starved to death,” says the letter, which Editor Richard Hanners said would run in the paper’s Thursday edition.

Warner told NBC News that he wrote the letter only “after seeing Burns make the claim that he had only taken $5,000 from Jack Abramoff.” He added, “I immediately thought ‘$5,000 worth of sushi,’ as sushi was something that Signatures specialized in and often had ordered or sent to Hill offices."

Warner said he ate at the restaurant gratis himself and saw Burns’ staffers do the same.

‘Common knowledge’
“It was common knowledge that Burns’ staff (and others) spent considerable time in Signatures chowing down on free meals, and I personally witnessed this a number of times. They also took advantage of Jack’s skyboxes at MCI Center and Redskins games whenever these were available to them,” he said.

Warner said he ate free only when Abramoff “invited me socially or to meet people, and I sat at his table —40 — otherwise I paid for everything myself and my friends as well and often tried to pay Jack’s tab. For Jack, there was no tab.”

Erik Iverson, a spokesman for Burns in Montana, called Warner “an East Coast Jack Abramoff apologist” and said the letter was “a last gasp” to link Abramoff with Burns, who is in a closely watched re-election race with Democratic challenger Jon Tester.

Burns has said that he didn’t know Abramoff well and that he didn’t play a role in Abramoff’s wrongdoing. But Burns received $150,000 from Abramoff, his tribal clients and associates — more than any other lawmaker, according to campaign finance records. And Burns had trouble handing control of $111,000 of Abramoff-related campaign contributions back to their original donors — four Indian tribes.

Burns tried to give the campaign contributions to the Montana Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council, but the council voted to reject the money, saying it was “tainted.”

Burns finally returned the money to tribes in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Michigan. The tribes had contributed to a now-defunct Burns campaign account.

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Hot spot in a scandal
Signatures has played a prominent role in the three-year influence peddling investigation. David Safavian, a former top White House procurement official and onetime chief of staff at the General Services Administration who was sentenced last month to 18 months in federal prison for lying about his dealings with Abramoff, said Signatures was one of his favorite watering holes in Washington and a frequent place to meet with Abramoff.

The House Government Reform Committee released a 93-page report that said “Team Abramoff” had 485 contacts with the White House from 2001 through early 2004 and that Abramoff and his associates apparently spent close to $25,000 for meals and drinks for White House friends.

Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, who is expected to serve 27 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy and making false statements, was also a frequent guest at Signatures.

Prosecutors allege that a former Ney staffer, Neil Volz, treated Ney and his staff to $6,400 worth of meals and drinks at Signatures over seven months beginning in March 2002 — during which time Ney was advocating in behalf of two Abramoff tribal casino clients to insert language in an election reform bill that would benefit them.

In his guilty plea, Ney admitted that he had frequently accepted free meals and drinks at Signatures and took free tickets to concerts and sporting events using Abramoff’s skyboxes at MCI Center, where the Washington Wizards play; FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins; and Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore.

Abramoff is scheduled to report to prison in Cumberland, Md., on Nov. 15 to begin serving a 70-month sentence for his role in the SunCruz gambling casino scandal in Florida. Abramoff has yet to be sentenced for the Washington corruption scandal; he will serve both sentences concurrently.

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