Democratic Sen. Jon Tester has failed to keep many promises he made during his first Senate campaign in 2006, including publicly releasing meetings between his Senate staff members and lobbyists.
CNN’s KFile reviewed the lofty promises the Montana Democrat made while running against a Republican he successfully portrayed as a Washington insider with ties to lobbyists. On this point as on others, Tester, candidate for re-election in 2024, did not keep his commitment.
“I will end secret meetings with lobbyists. At the end of each business day, I will post a list of all office meetings that I or my team have had with a lobbyist,” Tester pledged in 2006.
But a review of archived versions of Tester’s Senate website shows that while he posted his own meetings, no staff meetings were ever posted — which one expert said would leave out most of the work crucially carried out on legislation by special interest groups.
“It’s the employees who collect all the information at the beginning, trying to understand all the issues so they can inform their boss first, which usually requires long meetings with lobbyists,” said Kedric Payne, vice president of the band. president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan ethics and campaign watchdog group.
Payne added that the relationship between congressional staff and lobbyists is “very close”: Lobbyists provide their expertise to staff, which gives them a way to advocate for their clients’ interests.
Congressional ethics and the fraud and corruption scandal involving Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff were the focus of Tester’s 2006 race against Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Burns found himself criticized for his ties to Abramoff, who was jailed over the scandal and was known for giving gifts, trips and campaign donations to members of Congress. Burns ultimately returned $150,000 in campaign donations he received from Abramoff and his clients and associates.
Two weeks after the 2006 election, Tester reiterated his support for limiting the influence of lobbyists by posting meetings.
“I know it’s difficult when you’re dealing with staff and offices of this size,” Tester said on “Meet the Press.” “But the fact is that people here need to know who we are meeting with so that they also have the opportunity to make a difference.”
In 2006, the Montana Democrat also pledged to advocate for stricter rules for lobbyists in meetings with congressional offices. During the campaign, Tester said he would “work to require all lobbyists to report on a publicly accessible website, on a weekly basis, every meeting they have with a member’s office “.
But a review of legislation sponsored or co-sponsored by Tester found that no such requirement had ever been introduced. In July, he reintroduced a bill he has supported since 2014 that would ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists.
Tester’s office did not dispute that he had not introduced a bill on this topic, but provided internal emails showing that in July 2023 his office had inquired about the possibility of working on a new bill requiring monthly disclosure of meetings with members of Congress. And while his office did not acknowledge the failure to fulfill his promise, they said he took the initiative to fulfill his promise in other ways.
“Senator Tester kept his promise to Montanans to go above and beyond every other member of Congress on ethics, transparency and good governance,” said Sarah Feldman, Tester’s communications director. “He was the first and remains one of the only Congressmen to publish his public schedule daily, to lead the effort to close the revolving door to lobbyist influence in Washington, and to be the only senator to regularly lead audits of his office. He hopes his colleagues will join him in these efforts.
Since his first term, Tester’s campaign and office have touted that he was one of the only members of Congress to post his schedule, including meetings, online every business day, including meetings. Tester and Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, reintroduced legislation in July requiring all members to post their schedules at the end of each month.
Although Tester initially committed to publishing its schedule every day, a CNN review found that the schedule was published sporadically – sometimes with weekly or monthly updates instead of daily. In 2021, Fox News reported that there was a gap of nearly three months when the tester’s schedule was not released, which his office said was due to staff error.
Tester’s 2006 pledge only covers meetings held as part of official Senate business, and Tester does not publicly post campaign-related meetings that might involve lobbyists.
Yet over the years, Tester has co-sponsored and supported legislation strengthening ethics rules for members of Congress and lobbyists. For example, Tester introduced legislation that would ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists for life, as well as much stricter regulations for lobbyists.
Tester’s office noted that he had banned all lobbyist gifts to him and his staff and was not allowing former Senate members or staff to lobby him — as he had promised in 2006. The office also said it had fulfilled an important aspect of its 2006 ethics pledge: requiring Montana judges to conduct an audit of its office “each year.”
“It’s important to me that the people of Montana know exactly how my staff and I conduct the people’s business,” Tester said in a 2008 op-ed.
“And I will share this audit with the people of Montana,” he later added.
Although the campaign and Tester’s office have frequently promoted Tester’s office audits, CNN found no examples of the office publishing about them since 2012 or sharing the results.
Tester’s office provided CNN with the names of the judges it said conducted the audits in the years since 2012. Tester’s team chose the judges who would conduct the audits, which Tester’s office said , affirmed his commitment to ethical governance and found no problems, and at least two of the five judges involved in the public audits were donors or had a spouse who contributed to his 2006 campaign.
The judge who conducted the audit during the 111th Congress in 2011 donated several thousand dollars to Tester’s campaign in 2006. The wife of the judge who conducted the audit during the 110th Congress in 2009 also donated donated $1,250 to Tester’s campaign in 2006.