HELENA - U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg has made a point of criticizing Democratic Sen. Jon Tester's campaign money ties to lobbyists in their battle for the U.S. Senate, but the Republican has been less vocal about his son's position as an executive with a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm.
Rehberg's son A.J. Rehberg, who has worked at GAGE since 2008, more recently became the point man for the Mongolian government's interests on Capitol Hill. But Rehberg says there is no conflict of interest and he has done due diligence in asking the House ethics committee for guidance in the situation.
The congressman was told lawmakers' family members are not prohibited from working at a lobbying firm. GAGE also employs former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns.
"There is no law, rule, or standard of conduct that absolutely prohibits a family member from accepting employment with a lobbying firm, or even engaging in lobbying-related activities," ethics committee leaders told Rehberg in a letter.
Rehberg was advised to establish an office policy prohibiting lobbying of his office by his son as a safeguard, even though A.J. is not a registered lobbyist, and to warn GAGE not to advertise the relationship in attracting clients. He was also told to make sure GAGE was not given extra influence as a result of hiring his son as a vice president.
"But Denny and A.J. have taken it a step further, establishing a professional firewall. There's an understanding between them that they just don't talk shop together," said spokesman Jed Link. "Denny also made it perfectly clear to GAGE that hiring A.J. would neither help nor hurt their standing with him or his office. A.J. being on staff has no impact whatsoever."
Although A.J. Rehberg is not a registered lobbyist for his work with GAGE, the Embassy of Mongolia considers the congressman's son "the primary point of contact for the firm's work with the embassy."
The embassy said in a news release earlier this year that it has hired GAGE to be its first-ever lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. GAGE says on its website that it represents Mongolia to both Congress and the administration.
But regulatory paperwork shows that GAGE principal Leo Giacometto does the official lobbying work for the Mongolians. GAGE did not return a call Tuesday seeking comment.
The Mongolian embassy counts Rep. Rehberg among about a dozen House members who are part of the U.S.-Mongolia Friendship Caucus established to strengthen relations between the two countries.
Rehberg, the Republican, is pitted against U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, the Democrat, in an intense race. Rehberg has attacked Tester for taking more campaign donations from lobbyists than anyone else in Congress, and the Republican campaign has suggested the donations could lead to improper influence.
The issue has attracted the attention of CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The watchdog group recently asked the State Department, in a public records request, if Rehberg has ever written the agency on behalf of GAGE or its Mongolian interests.
"We are routinely concerned with the issue of members of Congress using their position as profit centers for their families. In this situation it would seem that Mr. Rehberg's son may be profiting from his father's position in Congress," said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.
Sloan said that any potential clients of GAGE would know the Rehberg name and be able to quickly associate A.J. to his father even if GAGE does not advertise the association. She said it would be hard for Rehberg to claim the high ground in a debate over the influence of lobbyists.
"For him to holler about anyone else's Washington connections is ridiculous and hypocritical," Sloan said.
The GAGE firm has deep ties to Montana, hiring Burns after he was ousted by Tester in 2006.
Ironically, GAGE until recently also briefly employed a well-known Democratic operative and former Tester employee that played a critical role in beating Burns. But Matt McKenna, who used to work for Tester and is now a consultant to former president Bill Clinton and others, says he is no longer working with GAGE.
Tester's office, which says former staffers are banned from lobbying the office, said Tuesday it however has no control over where former staffers choose to work and has no comment on those choices.
Tester's campaign didn't offer much comment on the employment of Rehberg's son as a lobbyist.
"This campaign will remain focused on what's best for Montana and this nation, and Congressman Rehberg's record - not his children," said Tester campaign manager Preston Elliott.
GAGE has unique ties to Mongolia, in addition to representing the country's interests in the United States.
A.J. Rehberg is also a vice president at a Mongolian uranium mining company called Mongolia Forward, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C. Several other GAGE employees are directors or advisers at the company, including Burns and Giacometto, known to many in Montana as a former state legislator and appointee in the administration of former Gov. Judy Martz.
Mongolia Forward says on its website it is trying to secure permits to start the mining venture.
GAGE also leads several other Mongolian business ventures, such as a fiber optic network company, and GAGE is part owner of a Pepsi bottling operation in that country.
"GAGE was instrumental in securing the exclusive Pepsi bottling and distribution rights in Mongolia," the company's website reads.