Senator Tester’s Broken Ethics Pledge

Sen. Jon Tester at a Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, January 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
The Democratic incumbent promised Montanans he’d run a squeaky-clean ship in Washington. Over two terms in office, he’s done the opposite time and again.

Upon entering the Montana Senate race in 2006, Jon Tester capitalized on the disgust most Americans rightly feel when confronted with Washington corruption by making an ambitious ethics pledge to voters. The pledge, which he never missed the opportunity to advertise while on the stump, included prohibition on accepting free travel from lobbyists and providing “access” to former staffers-turned-lobbyists as well as a promise to allow a Montana judge to audit his personal finances on an annual basis for the duration of his tenure. Now, some twelve years later, despite failing to follow through on a single tenet of his highly touted pledge, Tester is seeking a third term in the Senate.

During the 2006 campaign, Tester constantly cast his Republican opponent, Senator Conrad Burns, as a product of the establishment, citing Burns’ then-recently exposed ties to infamous lobbyist and swamp creature Jack Abramoff in an effort to differentiate himself as a Washington outsider. “If folks want to work for me that’s fine, but they will know going in that if they go to work for a lobbying firm, they are not going to have access coming back and the same thing, if they come from a lobbying firm it does not give that lobbying firm access,” Tester said during one debate against Burns. “The fact is we have a mess back in Washington, D.C. right now because we do not have honest and ethical people back there or they couldn’t be bought in the first place.”

Despite this earnest rhetoric, Tester has followed the Washington playbook to the letter since taking office. He’s hired former lobbyists, sponsored bills that former staffers lobbied in favor of, accepted lobbyists’ campaign contributions, and allowed lobbyists and other special interests to pay for his travel and that of his staff. He has become so comfortable with the ways of D.C. that he has accepted $1,378,387 in campaign contributions from lobbying firms over the course of his career and has accepted more money from lobbyists this election cycle than all but two of his fellow Senate candidates, according to opensecrets.org. Tester’s embrace of the Washington way is by no means a recent phenomenon: Over the course of his Senate tenure, Tester has hired six staffers away from lobbying firms, and, according to Legistorm, 15 of his former staffers have gone on to work at lobbying firms after serving in his office, on his political campaigns, or on his committee staff.

In 2006, Tester allowed for the possibility that his staffers might go on to lucrative lobbying positions, but he explicitly vowed to never allow them access. “You know, what is going on in Washington, D.C. in many cases is that you get staff members that go to work for a senator or congressperson and they quit and go to work for a lobbying firm and they have access to special favors. That revolving door is going to stop with me,” Tester said during a later debate against Burns. “I put forth an ethics plan that says, ‘No more.’ If they work for me and they decide to go [work] for a lobbying firm they will not have access. That is the way it is going to be up front.”

Despite this pledge, Tester appears to have accelerated the ethically dubious Capitol Hill-to-K Street pipeline typical of many Senate offices: Nine of the fifteen former Tester staffers who went on to lobbying firms subsequently worked on legislation that he sponsored or co-sponsored, which, of course, required the “access” he vowed never to provide. In perhaps the most telling example of the efficiency of the Tester “revolving door,” Jason Rosenberg worked for Tester’s congressional office for three years before moving to JPMorgan Chase, where, in the last five years alone, he’s lobbied in favor of twelve bills — many of which were related to financial regulation — that Tester either introduced or subsequently decided to sponsor.

Another particularly enterprising former staffer, Brendan Mysliwiec, worked for Tester on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee before moving to the lobbying firm American Rivers, where he lobbied on seven bills that Tester either originally drafted or later ended up sponsoring. Other former-staffers-turned-lobbyists have advocated all manner of legislation that Tester introduced or ended up sponsoring: His chief of staff from 2007 to 2011 went on to lobby for Pfizer and Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals Inc. in favor of health-care legislation he backed, and one of his staffers on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2014 went on to lobby for three pieces of conservation legislation that he wrote and introduced.

In addition to the malign influence wrought by the “revolving door,” Tester correctly identified free travel provided by political-advocacy groups and lobbying firms as a source of potential corruption. Unfortunately, it seems he came to believe he and his staff were immune to that corrupting influence after arriving in Washington. From 2007 to 2016, members of Tester’s staff have taken ten trips paid for by various think tanks and advocacy groups — including Third Way, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the American Israel Education Foundation (AIEF) — totaling $21,728.82, according to Legistorm. Tester himself has also benefited from lobbyist-financed travel: He and his wife took a trip to Jerusalem in November 2013, financed entirely by AIEF, an arm of the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC. The trip cost AIEF $12,000 on travel alone and over $25,000 total.

While he appears to have abandoned his pledge to forgo “revolving door politics” and lobbyist-funded travel almost immediately upon arriving in Washington, Tester did follow through on his promise to submit to an annual audit of his personal finances — for his first five years in office. There is no evidence that he continued the practice after 2012, the last year he posted the results of a yearly audit on his website. (His office did not respond to a request for clarification on whether he has continued to undergo personal financial audits without advertising the results.)

None of the politically problematic ethical practices embraced by Tester since he first took office are uncommon, and some of them may even be defensible on their merits. There are reasons the revolving door between public service and lobbying is so heavily trafficked, after all. But few if any of Tester’s colleagues in Congress were ever elected on the strength of as sweeping a pledge as he made to run a squeaky-clean ship. It’s entirely fair to call out his failure to live up to that pledge. Montanans deserve a senator who keeps his promises, and Tester clearly is not that senator. They can and must hold him accountable at the polls next Tuesday.


The Latest