HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester is accusing his opponent, Rep. Denny Rehberg, of abusing government travel during his tenure as a congressman to take lavish travel trips on the taxpayer dime with no good reason for doing so.
The Rehberg campaign countered that the trips were part of the congressman's committee work and accused Tester of trying to change the topic from other issues after a recent poll showed him slightly behind in one of the closest and most-watched Senate races in the country.
Rehberg has established a slim lead by attacking Tester, the Democrat, as an ally of an unpopular president and arguing that the Big Sandy farmer has failed to be as independent as he originally promised.
Tester, who has worked to keep distance with the Obama administration on some key issues, is building on his campaign theme of portraying Rehberg as a career politician who has produced few results.
Tester says research shows Rehberg took 15 trips to nearly three dozen countries, with little to show for it.
The destinations included many sites in Europe, including Paris dinners with federal government contractors, along with outings to vacation hotspots in the Marshall Islands and South America.
"He is basically seeing the world on the taxpayer dime," Tester said in an interview. "It just goes on, and on and on."
Tester said he has twice used the congressional delegation travel. He went to Kuwait and Iraq in 2007 and Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
He argues that both those trips were necessary to see the combat areas and to help shape his policies on the wars.
Rehberg has gone to the Middle East three times since being elected to Congress in 2000, according to research of travel records provided by Tester's campaign.
In 2001, the congressman went to Denmark, Iceland and Norway. In 2002, congressional travel took him to Australia and New Zealand, and the following year Rehberg went to Denmark, Netherlands, Spain and the United Kingdom.
A 2004 trip to the South Pacific's Marshall Islands and Micronesia preceded a trip later that year to the United Kingdom and Kazakhstan.
Tester argues that the 2005 trips were more egregious and started off in February to Panama, Argentina, Brazil and Tobago. The next month, Rehberg took a six-day trip to the France and Netherlands, where itinerary records show dinners with federal contractors.
In July, Rehberg visited Germany, Italy and France. And, in October of that year, Rehberg went back to Europe to see Lithuania, Ukraine and Austria — followed in November by a trip to Germany and the Netherlands.
Trips tapered off, with one in 2006 to Africa, and one in 2007 to France, Norway and the United Kingdom. The last two congressional travel trips taken by Rehberg in 2008 were to Kuwait, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries.
The Rehberg campaign said the travel came as part of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee that funds and oversees embassies. It said the congressman also promoted Montana trade, but did not offer specific examples.
"If Sen. Tester really cared one bit about how taxpayer money is spent, he wouldn't have rubber-stamped President Obama's liberal agenda, under which we've seen billions upon billions of dollars in wasteful government spending that has failed to create the jobs he and Obama promised Montanans," said Rehberg spokesman Chris Bond.
The trips, known as CODELs, were established for congressional fact-finding, education and oversight of programs, according to Rob Walker, an election law and government ethics attorney in Washington, D.C., who used to staff House and Senate ethics committees.
He said the rationale behind them is that it is best to have congressional members better informed by facts on the ground.
But there have been some perceived abuses over the years, which led to tighter rules in 2010, Walker said.
Tester argues they shouldn't be used to see tourist hot spots and to dine with federal contractors.
"The bottom line is, what did you really gain in knowledge that you couldn't gain by just talking to these lobbyists back here?" Tester said. "What did you get out of it?"