By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007
Sen. John McCain said yesterday that he has "never done any favors for anybody -- lobbyist or special interest group," as his presidential campaign issued a statement denouncing allegations of legislative favoritism as "gutter politics."
The Arizona Republican has hired a prominent Washington criminal attorney, Robert Bennett, to deal with the matter. "What is being done to John McCain is an outrage," Bennett said in an interview.
Bennett said he sent prepared answers yesterday to written questions submitted by New York Times reporters who have spent weeks investigating questions about whether the senator did favors for a Washington lobbyist or her clients. She has also retained a lawyer, according to a knowledgeable source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing legal matters.
McCain called Times Executive Editor Bill Keller this month to deny the allegations and to complain that he was not being treated fairly by the Times reporters, who had not yet interviewed him, the source said.
The Times inquiry burst into public view when the Drudge Report Web site posted an item about the newspaper's probe. Keller did not respond to a request to comment.
Speaking to reporters in Detroit, McCain confirmed the Times inquiry, adding: "I do find the timing of this whole issue very interesting. And we're not going to stand for what happened to us in 2000. We're getting close to the primary," he said, referring to the Jan. 8 contest in New Hampshire.
Bennett said McCain had personally retained him "to respond more forcefully" to the allegations than he did to unfounded rumors in the 2000 South Carolina primary, which included the falsehood that McCain had illegitimately fathered a black baby. Those rumors, Bennett said, "may have cost him the election."
McCain's top strategists initially declined to comment on the Drudge Report item, fearing that would open the door for news organizations to write about what his advisers regard as a non-story. McCain took the matter into his own hands by fielding questions about the controversy in Detroit, prompting his campaign to issue its statement.
"It is unfortunate that rumor and gossip enter into political campaigns," said the statement from Jill Hazelbaker, the campaign's communications director. "John McCain has a 24-year record of serving this country with honor and integrity. He has never violated the public trust, never done favors for special interests or lobbyists, and he will not allow a smear campaign to distract from the important issues facing our country."
Internet gossip Matt Drudge has occasionally served as a conduit for allegations that news organizations are investigating but have not yet published.
Bennett represented President Bill Clinton during the impeachment investigation mounted by Congress. In 1989, Bennett was special counsel to a Senate ethics committee probe of five senators, including McCain, over their ties to convicted savings-and-loan executive Charles Keating. The panel concluded that McCain used poor judgment in interceding with banking regulators on Keating's behalf, but that no punishment was warranted.