Havre Daily News
Rocky Boy tribal council members are speaking out in support of Sen. Conrad Burns and against the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council's rejection of a $111,000 donation from the U.S. senator.
The donation, composed of funds from lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his associates and his tribal clients, was considered “tainted” by some council members.
“We don't see this money as tainted,” Rocky Boy tribal council chairman John “Chance” Houle said Monday.
Houle represented the tribe in the vote, at which Rocky Boy voted to accept the money from Burns.
Rocky Boy tribal council vice chair Bruce Sunchild Sr. said the tribal leaders could have done a lot with the funds.
“Given a chance, I would have accepted it,” Sunchild said. “I don't think it was a very good move. Our moneys are kind of short.”
Houle said Sunchild wrote a column that appeared in the Havre Daily News on Monday supporting Burns.
“We want to support Senator Burns and all he has done for us,” Houle said. “Our senator is doing a great job. We wanted to get a letter of support out there.”
Abramoff has admitted to conspiring to defraud Indian tribes, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and has agreed to help investigators looking into influence-peddling in Washington.
Many lawmakers have returned money connected to the lobbyist and his associates, including Burns, who is giving away $146,700 in donations. Burns says he has not engaged in any inappropriate activities in connection with Abramoff.
Burns returned some money directly to Abramoff's tribal clients, but some of the larger donations were not able to be returned. That money was then designated for the Montana-Wyoming tribal council.
Sunchild said he was compelled to write the letter after reading and hearing negative comments about the senator.
The column referred to a story that appeared in the Missoulian on Jan. 17 in which people questioned Burns' support of tribes. The article quoted state Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, and Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in a landmark lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior over money owed to Native Americans.
“The story read they were tribal leaders but they're not elected on any tribal council,” Houle said.
Sunchild said he thought the comments were unfair.
Houle said Burns is receiving a “bad rap” for decisions probably made by his staff.
“I know that Mr. Burns probablynever met the man himself,” Houle said of Burns' ties to Abramoff.
Other tribal council members said they support Burns.
“You don't turn a guy away because of one allegation. He hasn't been charged with anything,” said tribal council member Brian “Kelly” Eagleman.
“We've always worked well with Conrad Burns,” Sunchild said.
Sunchild said that without Burns' support the tribe wouldn't have gotten $500,000 in funding for law enforcement technology and utilization of excess housing from Malmstrom Air Force Base, which helped not only with housing but also employment. Burns is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs the Interior appropriations subcommittee.
Eagleman also said the senator had a good track record with the tribe.
“He took it upon himself to help us with education, health and housing,” he said.
The senator's campaign chairman, Mark Baker, said in a prepared statement Wednesday that Burns' staff will contact the tribes that originally donated money to Burns and determine a charitable organization to receive the money rejected by the Montana-Wyoming council.
“Following Senator Baucus' lead, any remaining funds will then be divided evenly between the Montana tribal colleges,” Baker said.
Houle said he is supporting Burns on behalf of the tribe.
“Chippewa Cree was in full support and thank the senator for what he has done for our tribe and other tribes,” Houle said. “It is critical for tribes to have Senator Burns for four more years.”
Burns is running for a fourth term in the Senate.