Open government

Havre Daily News

by Tim Leeds

Montana's U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has not only pledged to keep the actions of his office open to review for the public, he has gone a step further — publishing an independent report on the ethics of the office on the Internet.

"I think this is the first of its kind of the 535 people who serve in Congress," Tester said Tuesday. "It may become contagious. It was a lot of work but we think it was worth it."

Tester, whose campaign platform in 2006 included working for ethics reform in the Senate and who supported an ethics reform bill in his first weeks on the floor, requested retired Montana Supreme Court Justice John C. Sheehy in February to review documents and write the report. Sheehy completed the report in April, and aside from stating his personal dislike of the use of earmarks to fund projects, found no detrimental ethical issues in Tester's office.

"For the present we can find assurance in that Senator Tester has opened the business of his office to daily inspection and has provided rules of practice for his staff to assure ethical behavior. Myself, I do not ask for more," Sheehy wrote.

"I am happy to see it is positive. Judge Sheehy found no flags," Tester said.

He said that requesting the report was following his pledge when he campaigned to maintain an ethical office, not to challenge other senators to have their procedures reviewed.

"I'm not doing this to implement changes across the board, I'm doing this for our office and for my reputation as a U.S. senator," he said. "I wouldn't expect anyone else to do it — what we said we were going to do, we’re doing."

In the report, Sheehy found that Tester's office met or exceeded Senate rules for ethics, and that he had made some innovative changes including publishing his daily schedule online. Sheehy notes that the posting of the previous day’s schedule shows the "grueling" work a U.S. senator must perform, and he concluded it also "gives acceptable evidence that Senator Tester and his staff are acting ethically."

Tester said he was pleased with Sheehy's review of that.

"He gave us a pretty glowing report of the schedule Online," Tester said. "We're one of the first, if not the first; some others have followed suit."

One of the points Sheehy noted is that Tester's office policy manual gives stricter rules on accepting gifts than the Senate's rules. The Senate rule, which Sheehy says is 'full of exceptions and provisos," precludes staff members from accepting gifts of $50 or more from lobbyists or organizations that employ lobbyists, and cannot accept $100 or more in a year from a single source.

Tester's rule is more strict: his staff members cannot accept any gifts — even if it"s a cookie or a bottle of pop, the item has to be paid for.

"Some would say we're going overboard; others would say it's where we need to go," Tester said. While Sheehy writes that in his opinion earmarks, the process of legislators attaching specific funding requests to bills, "has grown out of proportion and out of control," he notes that all of Tester's earmarks followed the Senate’s ethical requirements.

He also noted that Tester had success in his first year — he had requested more than $117 million for the fiscal year, and more than $45 million in earmarks in his first three months.

"All of the requests appear laudable, coming form every corner of Montana, relating to wastewater, water quality, land acquisition, species preservation, forests and so on," he wrote. Tester said despite problems with the earmark procedure, it is the only way to ensure projects are funded.

"Maybe we need to look at some other way to get money," he said.

"So many projects, if we don't actively try to get money for those projects, they don't get funded." He said he intends to continue having reports of his office's ethics written, although he is not certain how often it will need to be done.

"I want to talk to Judge Sheehy and get his opinion . . . ," Tester said. "We're not going to do it again unless it benefits us, to be honest. We might not do it again until the next session."