WASHINGTON -- Senator Conrad Burns of Montana is taking the offensive in the Justice Department investigation of Jack Abramoff as new information surfaces about Burns's involvement with the lobbyist and his clients.
The Montana Republican and his staff met Abramoff's lobbying team on at least eight occasions and collected $12,000 in donations around the time that Burns took legislative action favorable to Abramoff's clients in the Northern Mariana Islands, records show.
The 2001 donations to Burns included money directly from Abramoff and a key garment company executive in the Marianas who was part of the coalition paying Abramoff's firm to fend off stronger US regulations on the Pacific islands.
In addition, two Burns staffers had accepted a trip arranged by Abramoff to attend the Super Bowl in Florida earlier that year.
The Justice Department is investigating whether Abramoff, already charged with fraud in a separate Florida case, won any undue influence through donations and favors.
Burns, who is up for reelection to a fourth term in 2006, said he hasn't been contacted by federal investigators in the Abramoff probe or received any subpoenas. On Nov. 28, Burns wrote to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, urging that his conduct be reviewed so he could be cleared of wrongdoing.
''I welcome your thorough and expeditious review of this matter so that it may be disposed of officially once and for all and these outrageous and wrongful allegations may be put to rest before we get into the 2006 re-election cycle," Burns wrote.
In 2001, Burns served on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which was considering legislation the Marianas opposed. He also ran a Senate appropriations subcommittee that controlled spending for the Interior Department, which regulates US territories, including the islands.
On May 23 of that year, Burns voted against a bill in the Senate Energy Committee that would have phased out a nonresident contract worker program benefiting the Marianas' garment industry. The committee approved the bill, but it never saw action on the Senate floor. In 1999, it had moved through the same committee by voice vote without objections from Burns.
Abramoff's billing records, which the AP obtained from the US territorial islands under an open records request, show that in the three months before the vote, the lobbyist's team met twice with Burns and several more times with his Senate aides to discuss Marianas issues.
One of those meetings, between Burns's staff and Abramoff associate Todd A. Boulanger, occurred just six days before the vote.
Abramoff donated $5,000 to Burns's political action committee in February, just before the meetings started. His firm, Greenberg Traurig, donated $2,000 to Burns in March, and Eloy Inos of Saipan donated $5,000 in April.
The Inos donation was first reported by Lee Newspapers on Dec. 3.
Burns defended the meetings, saying they are part of the democratic process.
''Advocates, paid and unpaid, exercising their right to petition their government provide information on many issues but you always know that they are representing a particular position based upon their client or issue preference," he said Dec. 5.
In all, AP stories over the past few months have documented how more than four dozen lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, took actions favorable to Abramoff clients around the time that they received large donations from the lobbyist and his clients.
Burns received about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff, his firm and his clients between 2001 and 2004.