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Saturday, June 03, 2006

John Morrison and the Cultures of Corruption

In the June 6th Democratic Party primary election in Montana, there has been much written about how Montana State Auditor John Morrison's ethical and moral liabilities will prevent his campaign from being able to beat Senator Conrad Burns in November. But there is another problem that Morrison faces -- his focus on money instead of message have cost him the ability to capitalize upon what may very well be the defining scandal in the fall (which has nothing to do with Jack Abramoff). Today's breaking news of the FBI investigating a Conrad Burns slush fund is devastating for Burns and yet another reason why John Morrison is unfit to serve as the Democratic Party nominee.

I remember the exact date when I realized that the Montana Senate Primary wasn't a choice between two good candidates, but a choice between a good candidate (Jon Tester) and a political opportunist who cared more about his career than doing the right thing (John Morrison). It was October 26, 2005 and John Morrison was quoted as saying taking money from Leo Giacometto was "great", even though Giacametto had orchestrated the Culture of Corruption in Montana. Back then, I saw this as little more than a signal to Giacometto's K Street lobbyist buddies that Morrison wouldn't rock the boat. Given his infamous history in Montana Republican Party scandals, I saw Giacometto as potential political contrast while Morrison saw an opportunity to raise money. In my mind, this was a focus on the container instead of the content as Morrison wanted cash to run ads and was willing to sacrifice the message appearing in those ads.

At the time, Morrison's gamble may have made sense for those who buy into a DLC way of thinking: most of the Giacometto scandals were old news and it appeared that the fresh Abramoff scandal would be the top issue in the general election. For those willing to compromise their values for corporate cash, it might have made sense.

But an odd thing has happened since then, once again Giacometto is at the center of breaking scandals involving Conrad Burns (with the FBI, State Legislative Auditor, and NASA Office of Inspector General all investigating). Not only did John Morrison not stand up against corruption, but his attempt to further his political career in spite of doing the right thing has actually harmed his political future as he now lacks the authority to effectively criticize Senator Conrad Burns for his corrupt relationship with Giacometto, INSA and U.S.-Asia Network.

This backfiring political opportunism also occurred in the John Morrison scandal involving David Tacke and the Suzanne Harding affair. Instead of doing the right thing and following Montana's ethics codes, Morrison instead tried to protect his political future and now damn near every political pundit is saying that the scandal has seriously damaged Morrison's political brand.

To date, Conrad Burns' re-election troubles have resulted for his relationship with Jack Abramoff and the DC Republican Party Culture of Corruption. But the larger issue in the fall election may very well be Burns' relationship with Leo Giacometto and the Montana Republican Party Culture of Corruption.

Leo Giacometto

Leo Giacometto is to Montana what Jack Abramoff was to Washington, DC. Giacometto was the long-time Chief of Staff for Senator Burns, during which time he was know as the champion staff traveler for going on more junkets than anyone else on the Hill. The tale is that Giacometto abruptly resigned from Burns' office when a Washington Post reporter began looking into complaints from lobbyists concerning Giacometto's habit of running up enormous bar tabs and then sticking them with the bill. So Giacometto became a lobbyist.

But when the Montana GOP need a slush fund to keep operatives happy between campaigns, Leo Giacometto helped set it up and served as Vice President of the Montana Majority Fund. However, Giacometto was fingered in a suspected coverup of the death of House Majority Leader Paul Sliter following a MMF meeting and the press started looking into the organization. The resulting scandal brought down the Administration of then Republican Governor Judy Martz. In this scandal, Giacometto and company were busted for fundraising using the state capitol. Instead of ceasing to use slush funds, they ceased the fundraising and turned to earmarks from Conrad Burns to finance the GOP infrastructure.

Inland Northwest Space Alliance

In less than three weeks, the Montana Legislative Auditor is going to release the findings of an investigation into the Inland Northwest Space Alliance (INSA). Deputy Auditor Jim Pellegrini has notified Attorney General Mike McGrath that the investigation has already turned up potential violations of state ethics and nepotism laws.

The story of INSA may never have come out, but for a letter to the editor. On December 23, 2005 a man named George Bailey wrote a letter to the editor in the Missoulian that came to the defense of Senator Conrad Burns, claiming he is "good people" and talking about his position on the "powerful Appropriations Committee" in the U.S. Senate. Less than a week later the Missoulian posted a response from Montana Democratic Party executive director Jim Farrell that pointed out that Baily wasn't unbiased since he was running INSA and noted the $5 million in earmarks the non-profit has received. Farrell stated that Bailey's wife worked on Burns' re-election campaign, that Leo Giacometto was the INSA lobbyist, that INSA sources had contributed more than $15,000 to Burns and that the wife of Rehberg's chief of staff joined "numerous" former employees of Burns and Rehberg working there. Farrell called it a "jobs program for unemployed Republican staffers and their spouses."

After that, the scandal began to unfold. Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Stearns called for an independent audit of the University of Montanan's Northern Rockies Center for Space Privatization and its partnership with INSA (which it created as a spine-off company). The story noted that the creator of the space privatization center, Lloyd Chestnut had recently resigned from the University of North Texas where he was being investigated for "possible conflict-of-interest violations and manipulating federal documents". The story also noted that George Baily was an employee of the university at the time he signed the incorporation papers for the for-profit INSA and that UM officials had no idea that the center had helped create INSA.

It was then reported that Burns' daughter, Keely Burns, served with Mark Baker on the advisory board, that the wife of Rehberg chief of staff Erik Iverson was an associate, that government relations and outreach coordinator Amy Jo Fisher had worked in Burns' office for a decade. The article noted that, "INSA has significant connections to Sen. Conrad Burns and Rep. Denny Rehberg."

While everyone is investigating the money flowing in and out of the INSA, it isn't the only fund involving Leo Giacometto and Conrad Burns.

U.S.-Asia Network

The U.S.-Asia Network first came to the attention of the press in the same manner as the Montana Majority Fund, with reports that a GOP booze-junket got out of hand. This is an ongoing investigation, involving many of the same people in the Montana Majority Fund and INSA scandals.

On May 29, 2004 Ted Monoson of the Gazette Washington bureau reported that Sen. Burns and Rep. Rehberg were traveling to Kazakhstan on a trip organized by lobbyist and former Burns chief of staff Leo A. Giacometto and 3 of the 14 people who joined the trip would be employees of companies that are Giacometto's clients.

Two weeks later, Mike Dennison of the Great Falls Tribune wrote about a story in Roll Call about an anonymous e-mail that claimed Montana Congressman Dennis Rehberg and Senator Conrad Burns were "drunk the entire time" during a trip to Kazakhstan. Rehberg was examined at a Kazakhstan hospital after he either feel off his horse drunk or was stepped on by another horse, depending upon who you believe.

The story seemed to die, but six months later blogger Matt Singer of Left in the West looked at the fact Conrad Burns was the honorary Chairman of the US-Asia Network, Leo Giacometto was the official Chairman and CEO and Robert Arnesberg is President along with George Baily who rounded out the Board of Directors. Singer suggested that, "somebody should request some more information..." This broke into the Montana press when Lee Newspapers ran an expose on Giacometto and the U.S.-Asia Network that looked at whether the relationship between Burns and the non-profit was "ethically problematic" with Giacometto running it out of his lobbying firm.

2006 Montana Senate General Election

There is a pattern of corruption involving Leo Giacometto that the June 20th audit will likely catapult into the top issue during the fall election. Montanans know Leo Giacometto and they know he is dirtier than anything that has come out about Abramoff (save the Florida mob hit which is in close competition with Giacometto's role in the death of GOP Majority Leader Paul Sliter).

Yet John Morrison condoned Giacometto's tactics in a folly as bad as his cover-up of his affair. If Jack Abramoff is Exhibit A against Conrad Burns, then Leo Giacometto is Exhibit B -- yet Morrison lacks credibility to criticize on this point.

The more that comes out about Burns, the clearer it is that only Jon Tester is fit to take him on and win in the fall.

UPDATE: For more, see 4 & 20 blackbirds.

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