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Sunday, June 18, 2006

Missoulian Editorial on INSA Scandal

Today's editorial for the big Sunday Edition:

Legislative auditors are signaling possible criminal violations involving former University of Montana administrators at the head of a project supposedly working to promote space privatization, funded largely with federal money funneled to the group by Sen. Conrad Burns (with letters of support from Sen. Max Baucus and Rep. Dennis Rehberg). NASA, the agency whose budget was tapped by Burns to bankroll the endeavor and, ultimately, the creation of the Inland Northwest Space Alliance, has an inspector general investigating the matter. Reportedly, the FBI's also doing some sleuthing into the mess.

Montana's Legislative Auditor's Division issued a report this week. In letters recently mailed to the state attorney general, governor and commissioner of political practices, it cited possible violation of state law governing conflicts of interest by two UM administrators who went to work for INSA after its creation with money Burns earmarked for the university's undertaking. The legislative auditor also pointed to possible violation of state nepotism laws regarding the spouse of one of those administrators also placed on INSA's payroll.
Meanwhile, it turns out that a good chunk of the money Burns secured for UM and INSA went to a company called Compressus Inc., which in turn employed to the tune of six figures lobbyist Leo Giacometto, formerly Sen. Burns' chief of staff.
Corruption is the problem with Burns' pork-barrel re-election campaign:
This is a very good example of why it's such a mistake for members of Congress to circumvent normal budgeting procedures to direct money to pet projects and special interests. Sen. Burns earmarked money for something that has proved wasteful or worse. The best possible spin on this is that the senator didn't understand what the money was for or how it would be used. The problem with earmarking specific projects with sundry provisions tacked onto spending bills is that, if the offending senator or congressman isn't minding the store, then nobody likely is. Obviously, the administration - NASA in this instance - has a duty to make sure the money's well-spent. However, when powerful members of Congress signal special interest in something by earmarking funds, it may be expecting too much of working stiffs in the bureaucracy to ask too many questions.

It's hardly cause for wonder that the level of corruption in Washington, D.C., has risen coinciding with the proliferation of earmarked budget provisions. The ability to dole out significant sums from the Treasury to cronies and contributors without meaningful oversight by anyone is corrosive to democracy. It's a practice that has tended to blur the distinction between campaign contribution and bribe, since some contributors get something tangible in return for their investment.

And, if nothing else, as INSA has demonstrated, it's a good way to waste money. Whatever ultimately comes to light involving INSA, this mess ought to debunk the notion that, however irresponsible, pork-barrel spending is always good for the folks back home.
Count it de-bunked.

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