Democratic Sen. Jon Tester failed to fulfill multiple promises he made in a public ethics pledge during his first Senate campaign in 2006, including a vow to publicly post meetings between members of his Senate staff and lobbyists.
CNN’s KFile reviewed lofty promises made by the Montana Democrat when he was running against a Republican he successfully painted as a Washington insider tied to lobbyists. On this point and some others, Tester – who is running for reelection in 2024 – failed to follow through on his commitment.
“I’ll end secret meetings with lobbyists. At the end of every business day, I will post a list of every in-office meeting that I or my staff has had with a lobbyist,” Tester pledged in 2006.
But a review of archived versions of Tester’s Senate website shows that while he did post his own meetings, no staff meetings were ever posted – which an expert noted would leave out most of the crucial work being done on legislation by special interest groups.
“The staffers are the ones collecting all the information in the beginning, trying to understand all the issues so that they can brief their boss in the first place, and that requires extensive meetings with the lobbyists, typically,” said Kedric Payne, the vice president of Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan ethics and campaign watchdog group.
Payne added that the relationships between congressional staffers and lobbyists are “very close” – lobbyists provide expertise to staffers, who give lobbyists a way to advocate for their clients.
Congressional ethics and the fraud and bribery scandal involving GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff were center stage in Tester’s 2006 race against Republican Senator Conrad Burns. Burns found himself under fire for ties to Abramoff, who went to jail over the scandal and was known for providing gifts, trips and campaign donations to members of Congress. Burns eventually returned $150,000 in campaign donations that 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 that’s tough when it comes to staff and offices this size,” Tester said on “Meet the Press.” “But the fact is the people back home need to know who we’re meeting with so that they have the opportunity to put their two bits in too.”
In 2006, the Montana Democrat also vowed to advocate for stricter rules for lobbyists on meetings with Congressional offices. During the campaign, Tester said he would “work to require all lobbyists to declare on a publicly available website, on a weekly basis, every meeting they have with a member’s office.”
But a review of the legislation Tester sponsored or co-sponsored found no such requirements were ever introduced. In July, he reintroduced a bill he’s supported since 2014 that would ban members of Congress from becoming lobbyists.
Tester’s office did not dispute he had not introduced a bill on this topic but provided internal emails showing in July 2023 his office inquired about working on a new bill requiring monthly disclosures of meetings with members of Congress. And while his office did not acknowledge the lack of the fulfilled pledge, they said he had led on fulfilling his pledge in other ways.
“Senator Tester kept his promise to Montanans to go above and beyond every other Member of Congress when it comes to ethics, transparency, and good governance,” said Sarah Feldman, Tester’s communications director. “He was the first, and remains one of the only Members to post his public schedule daily, is leading efforts to close the revolving door of lobbyist influence in D.C., and is the only Senator to routinely conduct 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 is one of the only members of Congress to post his schedule, including meetings, online each business day, including meetings. Tester and Sen. Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat, reintroduced legislation in July to require all members to post their schedules at the end of each month.
Though Tester initially pledged to post his schedule every day, a CNN review found the schedule was posted sporadically – sometimes with weekly or monthly updates instead of daily. In 2021, Fox News reported there was a nearly three-month gap when Tester’s schedule was not posted, which his office said was due to staff error.
Tester’s 2006 pledge only covers meetings done as official Senate business, and Tester does not publicly post campaign-related meetings that might involve lobbyists.
Still, over the years Tester has co-sponsored and supported legislation that strengthened the ethics regulations on members of Congress and lobbyists. For instance, Tester introduced legislation that would implement a lifetime ban on members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists along with much stricter regulations for lobbyists.
Tester’s office noted he did ban all lobbyist gifts for him and staff and does not allow former members of the Senate or staff to lobby him – as he promised in 2006. The office also said he fulfilled one big aspect of his 2006 ethics pledge: promising to have Montana judges conduct an audit of his office “every 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’ll share that audit with the people of Montana,” he later added.
Tester’s office did provide CNN the names of judges, who they say conducted the audits in the years since 2012. Tester’s team chose the judges who would complete the audits, which according to Tester’s office affirmed his commitment to ethical governance and found no issues, and at least two of the five judges involved in public audits were donors or had a spouse who was a donor to his 2006 campaign.
The judge who conducted the audit in the 111th Congress in 2011, donated several thousand dollars to Tester’s 2006 campaign. The wife of the judge who conducted the audit in the 110th in 2009 Congress donated $1250 to Tester’s 2006 campaign as well.