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The Justice Department ended its investigation of former Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., at a time when it fears that all its public corruption cases, including those involving disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, have been jeopardized by an August court ruling.

The department last month asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse that ruling, saying that "until it does so, investigations of corruption in the nation's capital and elsewhere will be seriously and perhaps even fatally stymied."

Burns' lawyer, Ralph Caccia, announced Wednesday that Justice's Public Integrity Section notified him it had concluded its investigation of Burns for his connections to Abramoff. On Friday, Caccia said that means no charges will be filed against Burns.

"The case is over," Caccia said in a telephone interview. "The government declined the case. No charges are coming. ... It is accurate that it's over, and we're happy about it."
Caccia declined to comment further about the findings of the investigation or what else the Justice Department may have communicated to him.

Justice's viewpoint

Caccia did say that an article Friday in the Washington Post about the end of the Burns investigation summarized Justice's viewpoint on the matter. The article said that, unlike others being prosecuted, Burns was not accused of accepting personal gifts from Abramoff. It also noted that Justice lawyers said two weeks ago that an August decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could impede remaining aspects of the Abramoff investigation.

The appeals court decision came in an unrelated case, the bribery investigation of Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., in whose Washington home freezer FBI agents found $90,000. FBI agents also searched his congressional office, seizing paper documents and computer files, which set off a major controversy over the balance of power between the legislative and executive branch.

Jefferson requested that all seized materials be returned. In August, the appeals court held that the search of the files in his congressional office violated the "speech or debate clause" of the Constitution. In carrying out a search warrant for nonlegislative records of criminal activity, the court said, FBI agents had to review all of the papers in the office, some of which probably related to legislative acts and therefore have a protected status.

Petition filed

Justice filed a petition on Dec. 19 asking the Supreme Court to overturn that ruling, saying that incidental exposure to legislative records should not stop agents from being able to use other documents.

It said the Constitution protects speech or debate only, not the disclosure of information through a criminal search warrant.

The ruling cast an "immediate cloud over ongoing public-corruption investigations," the petition said. It "casts doubt on searches of other places and a wide range of other investigatory techniques deemed essential to ferreting out corruption and criminal conduct by both members of Congress and persons who deal with them."

The petition said the ruling has been interpreted by some members of Congress that federal agents cannot conduct voluntary interviews with Capitol Hill staffers without the members' consent.

Because of the ruling, federal investigators changed their techniques, it said. Federal agents no longer search for documents in an office of a member of Congress located in his home, nor use wiretaps against members in the District of Columbia, "the location where relevant communications are most likely to occur."

The Post article said Justice lawyers were unavailable to comment on the effect of the decision on the Burns investigation, but that "among the other inquiries affected" are Abramoff-related investigations of Reps. John Doolittle, R-Calif., and Tom Feeney, R-Fla., and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

In a Wednesday statement, Burns said he "never doubted that the baseless and politically motivated charges leveled against me would be found to be without merit." He also said he was never interviewed as part of the investigation but that he made all records from his office going back nearly a decade available to the government for review, including all electronic records.

Burns did not return calls for him at Gage LLC, the lobbying firm where he now works.

Justice spokesman Peter Carr confirmed that the department had concluded its investigation but declined to answer any questions about the findings or consequences of the investigation, or whether any former Burns staffers remain under investigation.

"We've concluded our investigation and that's all that we've said," Carr said. "We aren't commenting on the results of the investigation. I've just been confirming that we had contact with his lawyer."

A Federal Election Commission report showed that Burns paid the law firm Powell Goldstein LLP, where Caccia works, more than $160,000 between January and March of 2007. About $60,000 went to the firm to take all the data from the hard drives of every computer in his Senate office and store it, Burns said in an interview last year.

Federal prosecutors were investigating the pressure that Burns brought on the Interior Department to give a $3 million school construction grant intended for poor Indian tribes to the wealthy Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan, an Abramoff client, the Post article said.

Burns pushed Interior to reverse its decision that the tribe did not qualify for the funds and when that effort failed, he earmarked the money in a 2004 appropriations bill, the article said. But unlike his staffers and some other lawmakers caught up in the Abramoff investigation, Burns was never accused of taking personal gifts or favors from the lobbyist, a key element in many prosecutions, it said.

Burns accepted about $150,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff, his clients and associates, the highest total of anyone in Congress. He later gave the money away.

Will Brooke, Burns' former chief of staff, confirmed in 2006 that Justice Department investigators were looking into a 2001 Super Bowl trip attended by two Burns staffers and organized by Abramoff.

Abramoff's sentencing has been delayed while he continues to cooperate with federal investigators about his dealings with lawmakers. A dozen people, including Capitol Hill staffers, lobbyists, administration officials and one former congressman, have been convicted or pleaded guilty. Abramoff is serving prison time for an unrelated fraudulent casino deal. The Abramoff controversy played a large role in Burns' re-election bid in 2006, which he lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who defeated him, hammered home the ethics theme throughout the race.

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