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WASHINGTON (LEE) — From 1995 to 1998, former Alzada rancher Leo Giacometto worked as Sen. Conrad Burns’ chief of staff in Washington, D.C.

Six years later, after Giacometto had quit to work as a lobbyist, Burns called on him again.

In a move that Burns’ office describes as innocuous and at least one observer described as ethically problematic, Burns proposed forming a non-profit group with Giacometto in 2003. The group, started with $100 from Giacometto’s personal bank account and run out of his D.C. lobbying firm, is called the U.S.-Asia Network and Burns, its chairman, has described the outfit as one of his top priorities.

Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said Burns’ involvement with the group is unusual.

“It presents some problems because Burns is aligning himself with what is essentially a trade association run by lobbyists,’’ he said.

No other member of Montana’s congressional delegation has ever started a non-profit group with lobbyists, according to representatives of both Democrat Sen. Max Baucus and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

The group was formed to promote international trade with an emphasis on high-tech and telecom, according to a Burns newsletter. Giacometto’s clients include communications companies such Nextel and AT&T. Burns sits on the Commerce Committee and through 2004 chaired its Communications Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over telecommunications law.

Records show the group has little money and has hosted a handful of events, including one trip to South Korea and a Washington reception boasting presidential adviser Karl Rove as guest speaker. While run out of Giacometto’s firm, Gage, the network’s events are paid for by cellular phone and communications giant Qualcomm, said Mike Rawson, another former Burns staffer who quit to lobby with Giacometto and is now head of the U.S.-Asia Network. In 2003, an affiliated group paid to send Rawson, then a Burns staffer, to a U.S.-Asia Network-sponsored event in South Korea.

James Pendleton, a Burns spokesman, said the senator serves as a “figurehead chairman’’ and said it is “doubtful’’ he knows where the group got its money. Rawson said his involvement with the group is no different from that of any other businessman who volunteers for charitable organizations.

Pendleton said Burns was moved to start the group to keep alive the heritage of Mike Mansfield, a Democrat whose long career as in the U.S. Senate was capped with an ambassadorship to Japan.

The U.S.-Asia Network does not pay its board members, including Burns.

Asked why Burns chose a lobbyist with a long career in Republican politics to start a non-partisan group, Pendleton said: “He needed somebody with experience both at the corporate and political level, regardless of party affiliation. I don’t think the fact that he’s a lobbyist had anything to do with it.’’

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Burns, who continues to serve as chairman of the network, has repeatedly called it one of his top technology priorities.

Robert Arensberg, another Gage lobbyist who once served as a Burns fundraiser, serves as secretary and treasurer of the network.

In 2003, the network helped organize a Capitol Hill panel discussion about technology issues in Asia. In 2004, it arranged a trip to Kazakhstan. Burns, Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., Giacometto and a Qualcomm lobbyist attended, among others.

Kline Gilhausen, a Bozeman resident and one of Qualcomm’s founders, said he didn’t know what the group was when asked why the company gave money to it. Gilhausen was on the 2003 South Korea trip, which Rawson said was paid for by the Korean chapter of the organization.

The U.S.-Asia Network took down its Web site late last year after Matt Singer, a Montana Internet columnist, began writing on-line essays about the group. Giacometto said the timing was coincidental and that the group had recently named new officers and wanted to update the site. The site remained inactive as of last week.

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