By MARY CLARE JALONICK
Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican in a tight re-election race, flew on a private plane chartered by Vonage Holdings Corp. just days after he pushed legislation that the company has advocated for more than a year.
Burns accompanied Vonage lobbyist Frank Cavaliere on the company’s chartered plane to and from the "13th Annual Burns Classic Golf Weekend" in Bigfork, Mont., on Saturday. Cavaliere and a Burns spokesman both confirmed the plane trip to The Associated Press on Monday.
Campaign finance rules allow members of Congress to fly on corporate aircraft as long as they reimburse the company for the equivalent of first-class airfare. Jason Klindt, a spokesman for Burns, said the flight was arranged in August and the senator will reimburse the company.
The fundraiser was held two days after the Senate passed a Burns-sponsored amendment that was pushed in various forms by Vonage and several public safety groups. The amendment was added to a port security bill that the Senate approved 98-0 last Thursday.
The legislation, originally sponsored by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, would give Internet phone companies the ability to better provide their consumers access to 911 services. Though some provisions that would benefit Vonage and other Internet phone providers were stripped from Burns’ final amendment, the legislation would help the company comply with a Federal Communications Commission mandate to provide enhanced emergency service to its customers.
Vonage and other companies that connect calls over the Web have been under fire for problems with connecting its customers to reliable 911 service, and had asked Congress for the tools to help them.
Among the lobbying firms working for Vonage has been Gage, a group founded by Burns’ former chief of staff Leo Giacometto.
Vonage CEO Jeffrey Citron has contributed $4,000 to Burns’ campaign since March 2005 and the company paid $75,000 to Gage for lobbying on various bills last year, according to campaign and lobbying disclosure reports. Brooke Schulz, senior vice president of corporate communications for Vonage, said Gage does not lobby Burns on the company’s behalf.
Calls to Gage were not returned Monday.
Burns, a three-term incumbent, is in a competitive race against Democrat Jon Tester, who has attempted to make ethics a central issue of the campaign.
The Burns amendment would give Vonage and other Internet phone companies access to the 911 infrastructure used by traditional phone companies. It would also provide liability protection for the Internet phone companies and phone centers that handle emergency calls.
In March, Citron said these two provisions were important to help the company comply with the FCC mandate.
Some provisions pushed by Vonage did not make it into the bill, however. Two provisions that could have given the company more leeway to comply with the FCC mandate were stripped from Burns’ final version of the amendment.
Schulz said the omitted provisions were those that the company most wanted.
"It’s odd to suggest this was somehow a ‘thank you,’" Schulz said in a statement.
Klindt echoed Schulz.
"Frankly it is a wonder that they are still speaking to us," he said. "Conrad has been working since July to remove their provisions from the bill. He was ultimately successful and that’s why it passed unanimously."
Tester has played up the ethics issue and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was convicted on federal corruption charges earlier this year. Burns’ campaign took about $150,000 in donations from Abramoff, his clients and associates, all of which he has since returned or given to charity.
Lisa Sutherland, staff director for the Senate Commerce Committee, which passed the Vonage-friendly provisions late last year, said Burns’ amendment will save lives.
"He has been the strongest advocate on our committee for emergency response systems," she said.
Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press.