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Former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana dies at 81

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Republican Senator Conrad Burns watches election returns at the Billings Hotel and Convention Center on November 8, 2006 in Billings, Montana. Burns is in a tight race with Jon Tester. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Former Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, a former cattle auctioneer whose folksy demeanor and political acumen earned him three terms and the bitter disdain of his opponents, has died. He was 81

Montana Republican Party Executive Director Jeff Essmann says Burns died Thursday afternoon of natural causes at his home in Billings.

Burns defeated two-term U.S. Sen. John Melcher in 1988 and rose to one of the most influential positions in Washington.

The Republican used his influence on the Appropriations Committee to set the course on energy development and public lands management across the rural West.

He was ousted from office in 2006 under the specter of scandal after developing close ties to lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was later jailed for conspiracy and fraud.

No charges were ever filed against Burns.