By Dustin Hurst ǀ Watchdog.org
HELENA — Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester routinely lauds himself as an ethics champion.
Sometimes, though, his efforts to show he’s accountable to taxpayers are often marred with unmentioned lapses in transparency.
“Montanans deserve honesty, openness and transparency,” Tester wrote in a March 12, 2008 editorial in the Missoulian.
To fulfill a 2006 campaign pledge, Tester ask retired Montana judges to conduct semi-regular audits of his official U.S. Senate office finances, gifts and travel, among other things.
All three reports provided glowing reviews of Tester’s conduct.
As they should.
Two of the audits were done by judges sympathetic to Democrats, one of whom donated to Tester’s 2006 campaign.
Former Montana Supreme Court Justice John C. Sheehy conducted Tester’s first review, released April 19, 2008. While it serves as an accountability vehicle, it dually reads like a campaign advertisement.
In a section about earmarks, Sheehy lauds Tester for securing project money for the Treasure State.
“Whatever the true impact of new money may be, the fact most readily deduced is that because of the provisions of Sen. Tester’s earmarked funds, Montanans will not have to dig into personal resources in the form of additional taxes, drives or higher prices to produce like amounts to fund the same projects,” Sheehy wrote.
Given Sheehy’s political history, it might come as little surprise the retired judge gave Tester high marks. Before serving on Montana’s highest court, Sheehy served four terms in the Montana Legislature — as a Democrat.
Tester pushed aside concerns about Sheehy’s partisan leanings in a March 2008 newspaper interview.
Helena’s Independent Record asked whether Sheehy’s political past could prove problematic, and Tester promised it would not cloud the process. “I really don’t,” Tester said. “Judge Sheehy was a very fair, honest guy and a distinguished Supreme Court justice.”
Neither the paper nor Tester mentioned that a member of the Sheehy household donated to the senator’s 2006 campaign. Sheehy’s wife, Rita Sheehy, who died in February, donated $500 to Tester’s campaign Sept. 4, 2006, according to Federal Election Commission records.
On March 30, 2011, she donated another $500 to support the Democrat’s re-election.
Sheehy implied in an interview with Watchdog.org that politics didn’t play a role in his report, noting that Tester’s office intially offered the review to two Republicans before staffers came to him. The Republicans, who Sheehy didn’t name, turned down the offer.
“They didn’t want to be nonpartisan,” he said Tuesday.
He was chosen, in part, because former Montana District Court Judge Gordon R. Bennett recommended him to Tester’s staffers.
But Bennett plays a much larger role in Tester’s ethics reviews than simply bestowing a blessing on a judicial colleague.
Bennett, a donor to Tester’s 2006 campaign and this year’s re-election attempt, provided the Democrat’s 2010 review.
The Montana Standard editorial board, a Butte newspaper, described Bennett’s audit this way:
“Overall, the judge was pleased with what he found, but it’s also reassuring to know he proffered some constructive criticism as well. A rubber-stamp report would have raised red flags. Nothing’s perfect.”
Bennett wrote that while Tester’s office exemplifies high ethical standards, some additional tightening would do the senator well. The judge disliked that staffers’ family could work as lobbyists under Tester’s policies, and he disagreed with a list of exceptions for staffers accepting gifts.
Overall, Bennett approved of Tester’s exceptional conduct and rules.
“As I noted, I believe Sen. Tester has demonstrated exceptional leadership and dedication in establishing a new and more effective system of ethics developments and control for his offices,” the retired judge wrote concluding his August 2010 audit.
Nowhere in the report or Tester’s proclamations about the document is it mentioned that Bennett donated $3,350 to the Democrat’s 2006 campaign.
In fact, Tester’s spokesman, Aaron Murphy, brought brighter light to the fact that Bennett and Tester were not acquainted before the retired judge volunteered for the audit.
Bennett donated $600 more to Tester’s re-election war chest on May 31, 2011.
When contacted about the 2010 report, Bennett wouldn’t answer questions and hung up on Watchdog.org.
Tester and crew nailed the audit process the third time.
Former Montana Supreme Court Justice William Leaphart conducted the 2012 Tester audit and gave the senator another round of applause for his commitment to openness and transparency.
A search of FEC records show that Leaphart didn’t make any contributions to Tester’s campaign, and there are no other obvious ties between the judge and the Democrat.
In his review, released April 16, Leaphart said that after thorough study of the senator’s finances, gift disclosures and other documents, “I have no reservations in concluding that Sen. Tester is conducting the affairs of his public office with appropriate transparency and in complete compliance with ethical standards.”