Tester keeps campaign pledge on code of ethics

Helena Independent Record

by Charles Johnson

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., has asked a retired Montana Supreme Court justice to conduct a comprehensive ethics audit of his office.

Retired Justice John "Skeff" Sheehy of Helena has agreed to perform the audit of hundreds of documents at no charge and submit a written evaluation to Tester by April 15, if possible.

"It's unprecedented, to the best of my knowledge," Tester said Thursday night. "It's all about transparency, integrity in government and honesty. Anything we can do to help restore the people's faith in the integrity of government, we'll do."

During his successful 2006 Senate campaign, Tester unveiled his "code of ethics." and made the ethics of Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns a key issue.

"We expect the staff and myself to run by standards that are higher than what the Senate sets for itself," Tester said.

Tester said he would make Sheehy's evaluation public.

"We're going to look and see what Judge Sheehy has to say about it, and we'll respond from there," Tester said. "If he finds problems, we'll address them. If not, that's good for us."

Sheehy, 90, is a former Billings attorney who served on the Montana Supreme Court from 1978 until he retired in 1990. He served four session as a Democrat in the Legislature.

Asked if he expected criticism because of Sheehy's past political ties, Tester said, "I really don't. Judge Sheehy was a very fair, honest guy and a distinguished Supreme Court justice."

Sheehy could not be reached for comment.

Among the documents Sheehy will receive are: personal financial disclosure forms for Tester and his top staff; Tester's complete daily schedules; Tester's requested appropriations earmarks; Tester's legislative voting record; travel records for Tester's office; Tester's office policy manual; documentation of the use of franked or free mail sent by Tester; use of radio and television studies in Tester's office; U.S. Senate rules; federal election reports filed by Montanans for Tester and his political action committee, Treasure State PAC, in 2007.

"This truly is new ground," Tester said.

The Lee Newspapers State Bureau tried without success to reach someone at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit Washington group, to see if any other members of Congress had undertaken an ethics audit.

For the audit, Sheehy will use the Senate Code of Official Conduct, which is part of the Senate Ethics Manual, for his evaluation.

The Senate Code of Official Conduct covers public financial disclosure by senators and key staff; a ban on gifts from lobbyists or entities that employ them; a ban on senators being paid for speeches or appearances; a ban on conflicts of interest and improper influence exerted on a member; prohibition on unofficial office accounts; limits on official funds for foreign travel; limitations on franking or free mail; a ban on senators' staffs from engaging in campaign work except on their own time and not on Senate property; no discrimination in hiring employees; and limitations on senators' interventions with agencies on behalf of constituents.

Tester said he has already kept several campaign promises on ethics. He said he was the first member of Congress, to his knowledge, to post his daily schedule on the Internet.

Also, Tester said he and his staff buy their own meals if they meet with a lobbyist over a meal, although these have been rare meetings.

Tester said he's made his request for appropriations earmarks public instead of having them handled in the middle of the night without senators knowing who is advocating them.

He and other Democratic freshmen senators made an overhaul of Senate ethics provisions their first priority and got Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to put it first on the Senate's 2007 agenda. Tester called it "the most broad-based ethics reform since Watergate."