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Montana Sen. Jon Tester’s ethics crusade clashes with his campaign war chest

Lobbyist money and meetings complicate the Democratic incumbent's re-election fight in what's expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races of 2024.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at the Capitol on Feb. 1, 2022.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., at the Capitol in 2022.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

When Jon Tester first ran for Senate in 2006, the Montana Democrat promised to change the culture in Washington, in part by promptly disclosing all meetings with lobbyists and refusing to be lobbied by former colleagues.

Now seeking a fourth term, Tester is once more running as an ethics crusader, again introducing a bill that would ban members of Congress from ever becoming lobbyists.

But Tester’s record over 16 years in office hasn’t always aligned with the narrative he has cultivated, nor has it always met the high standards he has set for himself and proposed for others.

Since 2006, at least two dozen former senators and House members who have gone on to lobbying careers have contributed personally or through their old campaign committees more than $100,000 combined to Tester’s campaigns and affiliated PACs, records reviewed by NBC News show. While there is no indication that any of the donations were made explicitly with political influence in mind, they are emblematic of the revolving-door behavior that Tester has long railed against publicly.

“It shows how much the legislation is needed if the person who really wants it can’t even avoid these donations,” said Kedric Payne, vice president and senior director of ethics for Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group. “It puts the members in a position that they find difficult to deal with when former colleagues want to support their campaign and meet with them. They just seem to be unable to say no. And without any legislation to stop it, you’re probably going to get the same conduct.”

Tester, who has chaired the Defense Appropriations subcommittee since 2021, has also forged close ties with defense contractors. In one particularly illuminating example, he met virtually in March 2021 with the top executive of Anduril Industries, a company that lobbies on defense and border security issues. Their discussion was among almost three months’ worth of meetings that Tester’s office, citing a staff error, did not disclose until the following month, much later than the daily timeline that he has promised in the name of transparency.  More recently, in May, his campaign paid Anduril to provide rented space and catering for a fundraiser, a campaign official confirmed.

The donations by colleagues-turned-lobbyists and Anduril’s efforts to develop a relationship with Tester — neither of which have been reported in detail until now — fit into a larger pattern of conflicts with the outsider’s image Tester has long honed. Tester’s aides, for example, have not publicly disclosed their own meetings with lobbyists as the then-candidate vowed as part of a detailed 2006 ethics pledge, CNN reported last week. Tester rallied around the pledge in his bid to unseat Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican who had been linked to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Tester’s staff emphasized to NBC News that he remains one of the few members of Congress to publicly post his schedule and defended his commitment to ethics reform.

“Sen. Tester holds himself to a higher standard than any of his colleagues in Congress by refusing to be lobbied by former colleagues and pushing legislation that would ban them from becoming lobbyists,” his spokesperson Sarah Feldman wrote in an emailed response to questions. “Every decision Sen. Tester makes is based on one thing: what’s in the best interests of Montana and our national security.”

Next year’s race in Montana is expected to be one of the most competitive in the country, with Tester likely to face a well-funded challenge from businessman Tim Sheehy or a rematch with Rep. Matt Rosendale, whom he beat in 2018. GOP operatives looking to reclaim partisan control of the Senate are eager to highlight what they characterize as hypocrisy.

“Jon Tester told Montanans he’d be different, but he’s broken just about every ethics promise he made to get elected,” said Maggie Abboud, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s Senate campaign arm. “Tester should apologize to Montanans for lying to them.”

Despite his push for lobbying reform, Tester over the years has ranked among the Senate’s top recipients of campaign cash from lobbyists, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group that tracks money in politics. Tester was second only to Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., in 2018, when both were last up for re-election. In 2012, during his bid for a second term, he topped the list. 

The 24 donors who previously served in the House or the Senate — many of whom overlapped with Tester — stand out among the donors given his July sponsorship of the Close the Revolving Door Act. Tester had pushed for a lifetime lobbying ban on former members of Congress in the past, but he and other proponents fell short in rounding up enough support.

In a video announcing the new bill, Tester said he has “been fighting for more transparency and accountability in government since Montana first sent me here.” 

“It is past time that we shut the revolving door that has allowed too many folks in Washington to use their elected office as a stepping stone toward high-paying lobbying jobs for special interests,” he added.

The list of former members who have since become lobbyists and given to Tester’s campaign includes Democrats such as former Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, neither of whom served with Tester. Also on the list are former Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, all of whom did. 

Another past colleague, former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was known as Hollywood’s top lobbyist as head of the Motion Picture Association, over the years that he and his old campaign fund gave a combined $7,500 to Tester. Several donors, including Begich and Daschle, also have registered as foreign agents to represent other governments in their dealings on Capitol Hill.

Anduril has been another notable supporter of Tester’s campaigns. Since 2018, Tester and his leadership PAC have received $10,000 from Anduril CEO Brian Schimpf, with whom he’s met at least three times, according to Tester’s self-reported schedules, and $3,500 from an Anduril PAC. 

Tester has been a proponent of innovative defense technology for years. In May 2017, the month before Anduril was incorporated in California, Tester bragged at a Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing how “Montana entrepreneurs and small businesses are often on the forefront of technology, and they bring fresh ideas and cutting edge inventions to the table.”

In 2019, Tester pushed for a failed amendment that would have redirected hundreds of millions of dollars tabbed for then-President Donald Trump’s border wall project toward other investments, including “border security technologies” — Anduril’s area of expertise. In 2020, the Trump administration awarded a contract to Anduril to use the company’s surveillance technology, which relies on artificial intelligence, to help patrol the border.

Anduril’s lobbying efforts intensified once Democrats, seen as being more open to virtual security than the physical border wall Trump promised, took control of the White House and the Senate in 2021. The company spent $400,000 on lobbying in 2019, according to OpenSecrets. By 2022, that amount had more than doubled to $940,000. Anduril’s income from federal contracts has jumped, as well — from $90 million in 2020 to $211 million in 2022, records show.

In between his March 2021 meeting with Tester and the senator’s delayed reporting of it the following month, Schimpf donated $5,000 to his campaign. Tester also during that period convened his first Defense Appropriations subcommittee hearing, in which he focused on innovation and asked about barriers for private sector companies looking for federal contracts.

“I hope to hear the witnesses’ perspective on the global race for innovation and particularly as we compete with China and Russia,” Tester said in opening the hearing with two Defense Department officials. “And I look forward to learning more about ongoing and future DoD technology and innovation efforts and whether it has the tools and resources it needs to work with various partners across the country … including those at small businesses who can often bring fresh ideas, nimble operations and cutting-edge inventions to the table.”

The remarks, while consistent with his thinking as far back as 2017, were also in line with what Anduril had been advocating in corporate public relations writings in the weeks before his first hearing as subcommittee chair. Feldman, the Tester spokesperson, said there is no outside influence on how the senator makes his decisions.

“When it comes to his position as chairman of the committee that sets the defense budget, the only thing that influences him is preventing foreign enemies like Russia and China from doing this country harm,” Feldman said.

Schimpf met again with Tester last March — a meeting followed two months later by the fundraiser that Tester’s campaign paid Anduril to host and cater. In between the meeting and the fundraiser, three lobbyists who according to records have worked with Anduril since 2021 made donations totaling a combined $2,000 to Tester’s campaign, Federal Election Commission records show. A senior adviser to General Catalyst, a venture capital firm that has invested in Anduril, chipped in $3,300 during that same period.

Tiffany Muller, president of End Citizens United, a Democratic group opposed to the unlimited political spending practices ushered in by the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the landmark Citizens United case, defended Tester’s record. Muller’s group is among those rallying around Tester’s revolving door legislation.

“From day one, Sen. Tester has pushed to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists, require greater transparency, and end dark money in our elections — which has made him the top target for out-of-state special interests,” Muller said. “While multimillionaire Tim Sheehy faces questions about ethics and conflict of interest, Sen. Tester has stayed true to his roots and always fought for working Montanans.”

CORRECTION (Sept. 22, 2023, 4:21 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article mischaracterized the recipients of contributions from at least two dozen former senators and House members. They were Tester's campaigns and his affiliated PACs, not super PACs.