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Sins of omission

Who owns Montana's next senator?

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This week started out with front-page news about Montana's much-watched race for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Jon Tester. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that Tester's challenger, Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg, had failed to accurately report the sources of campaign contributions as required by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The revelation has touched off a battle between the Rehberg and Tester campaigns about transparency, trust, honesty and hypocrisy that leaves citizens in a conundrum about where to cast their vote in November.

Rehberg's forms did not list the occupations of 189 contributors in the first nine months of 2011. Now, had those contributors been homemakers or retirees, it's unlikely the story would have been front-page news. But as the AP discovered by cross-referencing campaign databases, those whose occupations were not listed turned out to be high-level D.C. lobbyists and some well-known public figures such as former Vice President Dan Quayle, who is chairman of Cerberus Capital Management and president of Quayle & Associates.

Rehberg has been pounding Tester for months because Tester is the leading recipient of lobbyist campaign contributions out of the entire 535 members of Congress. Even more ironically, Tester narrowly defeated incumbent senator Conrad Burns in 2006 by highlighting Burns's financial connections to D.C. lobbyists and painting him as a tool of special interests.

The problem, at least according to the Rehberg campaign, is that the omission of occupation was made by the donors, who simply left that part of the form blank. Likewise, if you believe Rehberg, his campaign staff has been trying to get that information and fill in the blanks to comply with federal election law. To say that explanation strains Rehberg's credibility would be putting it mildly.

The FEC rules only require that campaigns exert their "best effort" to comply with the occupation listing, yet Rehberg's campaign seems to have fallen short of that. According to accusations from the Tester campaign, however, it's a matter of trust, not verification. "This is exactly why Montanans can't trust Dennis Rehberg," Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy said. "He just called for '100 percent transparency' in campaign fundraising, then he hid the money he takes from Washington lobbyists."

Yet, as Tester and Rehberg sling mud at one another, leveling charges and counter-charges, there is a far greater question that Montanans should be asking as they try to navigate the rapids of this race for the Senate. Tester is the leading recipient of lobbyist donations in the House and Senate. Rehberg has no problems with special interests dumping contributions in his campaign war chest. The seminal question, therefore, is who will Montana's next U.S. Senator wind up representing? Will it be the special interests and lobbyists who dump millions into their campaigns or the little people of Montana who cannot afford what it takes to play in this high-stakes game?

This is where it gets tough to discern the differences between Tester and Rehberg. Remember last summer, when Tester suddenly opposed a measure to limit the charges large banks could levy on debit card users? That left many of Tester's former supporters scratching their heads, since the big banks and investment firms had recently crashed the economy, received massive bailouts from the federal government and suffered neither harm nor punishment for their part in destroying the lives of millions of Americans who lost homes, jobs and hope for the future. What was Tester doing weighing in on their side?

That riddle might be solved when you go to the OpenSecrets.org website, look at Tester's campaign contributors and find that J.P. Morgan Chase makes Tester's top five, as does Visa, Inc. Tester received over $60,000 in campaign contributions from big banks.

Take a minute or two longer on the OpenSecrets site and you'll see that the top five occupations or industries that contributed to Tester's campaign are, in descending order, Lawyers/Law Firms, Lobbyists, Retired, Securities and Investments, and Commercial Banks. Taken together, they represented almost $2 million in contributions by the end of 2011. Small individual contributions only amounted to 8 percent of Tester's campaign funds, while large individual contributions and PACs accounted for 86 percent.

Rehberg, meanwhile, doesn't have much to brag about in this regard. Perhaps because of all the blanks in his campaign reporting, the OpenSecrets database has considerably less specific information available at this time, such as a breakdown between large and small individual contributions or a list of his top five donors and the top five industries or occupations that are fundinghis campaign.

The effect of special interests "investing" in candidates became painfully obvious to Montanans when Senator Max Baucus took a lead role in formulating the Obama health care legislation two summers ago. Deep in the pockets of the insurance, pharmaceutical and health industries, Baucus refused to allow any discussion of universal or single-payer health care, instead kowtowing to his donors and inserting the onerous requirement that all Americans buy health insurance by 2014.

The conundrum for Montanans is obvious. Although we'll cast the votes to decide whether Tester or Rehberg goes to the Senate, it's still business as usual in D.C., with both bought by special interests.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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