Mr. McCain Soils Himself
It seems that Mr. Straight Talk Express likes his quid-pro-quo money from special interests just as much as any other Senator does. His 2008 campaign front group is not only paying McCain's campaign advisors-in-waiting salaries already while masquerading as a nonprofit, nonpartisan entity, but they are also securing donations for McCain sandwiched around actions he takes for contributors on The Hill.
A senator promotes a government policy sought by a corporation while a tax-exempt group closely tied to him solicits and gets $200,000 from the same company.
Campaign finance watchdogs say that creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. To their surprise, the senator is Arizona Republican John McCain, whom they usually praise for advocating campaign finance restrictions.
McCain's help to Cablevision Systems Corp. included letting its CEO testify before his Senate committee, writing a letter of support to the Federal Communication Commission and asking other cable companies to support so-called a la carte pricing.
McCain's assistance in 2003 and 2004 was sandwiched around two donations of $100,000 each from Cablevision to The Reform Institute, a tax-exempt group that touts McCain's views and has showcased him at events since his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign.
The group also pays McCain's chief political adviser, Rick Davis, $110,000 a year. Cablevision's donations accounted for 15 percent of the institute's fund-raising in 2003, tax records show.
McCain said he saw nothing wrong with the group's raising money from a company whose issue he championed because the donations didn't go to his re-election campaign. He said — and documents provided by his office show — he expressed interest in a la carte pricing since at least 1998, well before Cablevision advocated it.
"If it was a PAC (political action committee) or if it was somehow connected to any campaign of mine, I would say to you, that's a legitimate appearance of conflict of interest. But it's not," McCain told The Associated Press.
"There's not a conflict of interest when you're involved in an organization that is nonpartisan, nonprofit, nonpolitical."
Specialists on political ethics said they didn't see any distinction.
"I think there is an appearance issue any time you have a company or an interest giving large donations to any organization associated with a member (of Congress)," said Larry Noble, the former chief lawyer for federal election enforcement who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics.
Kent Cooper, head of the Political Money Line that tracks political donations, agreed.
"Senator McCain derives a clear benefit by using The Reform Institute to help the debate on campaign finance reform. His McCain-Feingold bill helped break the connection between members of Congress and large contributions. Here is an example of a large contribution going to the foundation connected with a member of Congress. I don't see a difference," Cooper said.
Davis, who ran McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, said he went to New York and personally asked for the donation from Cablevision chief Charles Dolan after another donor said he might give. The solicitation occurred one week after Dolan testified before McCain's Senate Commerce Committee in May 2003 in favor of a la carte pricing.
The company made its first $100,000 donation in July 2003.
I'm sure it's all just a coincidence, right?
Note that a former Chief Counsel for the RNC also piled on McCain in a bit of payback.
Jan Baran, former general counsel of the Republican National Committee and a longtime election lawyer, said "there's absolutely the appearance of a problem."
"What is a senator's top political adviser doing soliciting money in six-figure amounts for a senator's pet cause?" asked Baran, one of the lawyers who sued to try to overturn new campaign finance restrictions championed by McCain. "That is unseemly and certainly something that creates an appearance of impropriety."Baran was one of the attorneys in a losing effort that challenged the legality of campaign finance reform for the RNC. He is also a supporter of potential 2008 presidential candidate Senator George Allen of Virginia.
In the big scheme of things in Washington pay-for-play as practiced by scum such as Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, McCain's sordid behavior here is small potatoes. But it is interesting to see how McCain rationalizes accepting contributions and from whom, as well as see someone from the RNC mainstream take a shot at him. To McCain, the Reform Institute doesn't provide him with a political benefit, therefore it is OK to use them as a conduit for self-promotion funds. That's a crock.