HELENA — Six year ago, farmer Jon Tester ran as an outsider fighting lobbyists and corruption in Washington D.C. — even promising a unique ethics platform that has since pushed other elected officials to publicly post meetings held with lobbyists and others.
But after nearly five years in the U.S. Senate the Democrat's pledge is being tested amid one of the hottest Senate races in the country and the demands of raising millions in campaign money.
Tester counts many successes among his anti-lobbyist crusade. But his opponent, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, is finding it rich hunting ground for hypocrisy.
"It was an impressive pledge at the time and frankly, it still is," said Tester. "This sort of stuff doesn't make me the most popular kid on the block over here."
But Republicans have been hammering Tester for taking a lot of campaign cash from lobbyists after denouncing the influence of lobbyists.
So far this election cycle the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics has found that Tester took more campaign cash from lobbyists than any other members of Congress. The GOP also made hay earlier this year when it was revealed that big banks dumped money into Tester's campaign coffers as he took their side in opposing the congressionally mandated caps on debit card swipe fees.
Rehberg, the Republican, has also taken campaign money from lobbyists — just not as much as Tester. While Tester topped all of the Senate and the House with more than $200,000 in such donations, Rehberg was sixth among House members with his total of $58,350.
Republicans note a big difference: Tester was the one who promised in his successful 2006 campaign "to put an end to the culture of corruption in Washington" and trashed former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns' "K Street cronies."
His Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, remembers the criticism of his friend Burns well. Rehberg openly scoffs at the notion that Tester never specifically promised in his ethics pledge to refuse campaign donations from lobbyists.
"He can deny it if he wants. But he was number one in receiving money from lobbyists. That is a fact," Rehberg said. "For a guy that went into the last campaign saying 'not me. Not going to do it,' but then to be number one out of 535, it is hypocrisy."
Tester said the lobbyists don't get special access because of the donations, and he believes there are far fewer lobbyists coming into his office because of his pledge to post all such meetings on his Web site. And he said his ethics pledge bans gifts from lobbyists, such as dinner or travel, which can create bigger problems.
"I don't get hit by a lot of lobbyists," Tester said. "The reason is that we put that schedule on line and they are aware of that, and they stay away because of that."
The 2006 six-point ethics pledge put Tester in the news at a time when he was just an underdog in the Democratic primary.
The first plank promises to have a judge conduct an ethics audit of his office every year. The senator has instead conducted the audit each Congress — or once every two years — for a total of two audits so far.
Tester said that change was made when he realized how long it would take a judge to look through all of the documents, and the difficulty the office would have in finding a judge to volunteer for the task. Paying someone to do it, Tester said, could prompt people to claim the results are skewed.
"We are blazing new ground here. These ethics review take time. There are boxes of information," Tester said. "I think every congress is adequate because, frankly, things don't change much in one year."
Neither of the Tester audits uncovered any noteworthy wrongdoing. And both spoke at length to the difficulty of navigating the ethics regimen of Congress with its hundreds of pages of ethics instructions and rules. The most recent audit by retired judge Gordon Bennett credited Tester's office for writing its own manual that is far more workable.
But Bennett also found shortcomings, and criticized the manual for "blatantly" endorsing the Washington D.C. tradition of letting staffer spouses and relatives — or even congressional member spouses — work as lobbyists. His report, however, never found any such conflicts of interest.
"It is not enough for the members and their staff to be beset on every hand by lobbyists; it is not and should not be acceptable that they sleep and live with them," Bennett wrote in his audit.
Tester said he agrees, and would not be pleased if a staffer's relative showed up working for a lobbying firm.
Another part of Tester's ethics pledge promised to "shut my door to former members and staff who try to cash in on their connections" by lobbying their old colleagues. That promise was tested in early 2010 when a top staffer, Jason Rosenberg, left for lobbying and wrote in a goodbye email that he looked forward to working with his old colleagues.
The judge credited Tester with being sensitive to the criticism and quickly sending a public message that Rosenberg was leaving out a "one-way door."
Tester said Rosenberg has never been back to lobby.
"I can't even tell you what company he works for and that is a fact. We have never dealt with him on any policy," Tester said.
Tester, whose 2006 campaign was built on an anti-corruption message, said he doesn't know if things are better or worse in D.C. than he expected.
"I don't know what goes on in everyone's office. But ours is pretty clean, I can speak for us," said Tester, noting that there are plenty opposed to his suggestion for a lifetime ban on lobbying by former members of Congress. "I just guarantee there is a lot of heartache out there over that. But you should not come here with an eye on being a lobbyist."