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Dem raises questions about Lummis staffer

Wyo congresswoman calls campaign challenger 'tactless'

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CHEYENNE -- Wyoming's 2010 congressional race heated up recently, as Democratic candidate David Wendt blasted incumbent U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., for employing the controversial former director of the federal Minerals Management Service.

Lummis' campaign fiercely denounced the accusation, in what could be the start of a contentious election campaign for the state's lone U.S. House seat.

In a letter sent last week, Wendt demanded Lummis explain why she employs Johnnie Burton, who came under fire during her five years as head of the MMS, the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling and revenues from energy exploration on federal lands.

Burton, who served with Lummis in the state Legislature in the 1980s and was also director of the Wyoming Department of Revenue, serves as a Cheyenne-area field representative for the congresswoman, helping constituents with issues such as receiving veterans' benefits or obtaining travel visas.

As MMS director, Burton oversaw the agency plagued with what one federal investigator later called a "culture of ethical failure." Agency workers were caught taking bribes from, having sex with and using drugs with energy industry employees. Burton also promoted a now-defunct royalty-in-kind program that allowed energy companies to avoid making billions of dollars in payments to the government.

She also was criticized for not acting quickly enough to correct blunders on offshore energy leasing contracts that cost the federal government billions of dollars in royalty payments.

Burton resigned in 2007; at the time, a Department of the Interior spokesman said the leasing controversy played no part in her decision to leave.

"The citizens of Wyoming are entitled to know that the offices of their elected representatives in Washington, D.C., are untainted by allegations of past favoritism, impropriety and ethical misconduct," Wendt wrote in the letter.

In a statement, Lummis' campaign took to the offensive, calling the letter "a classless and slanderous" campaign tactic.

"His tactless attempt to politically gain from attacking a private citizen who has faithfully served her state and her country is unbecoming of someone seeking to represent Wyoming and our values," stated the response, sent by Lummis campaign spokeswoman Annaliese Wiederspahn.

Before Wendt's letter, both his and Lummis' campaigns had been pretty quiet.

Lummis is widely favored to win a second term over Wendt, president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, a nonprofit think tank.

Contact capital bureau reporter Jeremy Pelzer at (307) 632-1244 or jeremy.pelzer@trib.com. Read more about Wyoming politics and government at http://tribtown.trib.com/wypolitics.

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