By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and John Solomon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 31, 2007
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took a break from the presidential campaign trail in March to fly to a posh Utah ski resort, where he mingled with hundreds of top corporate executives assembled by J.P. Morgan Chase for its annual leadership conference.
McCain's appearance at the Deer Valley event, arranged by J.P. Morgan Vice Chairman James B. Lee Jr., a top McCain fundraiser, put him in a room with the chief executives of companies such as General Electric, Xerox and Sony. It was, Lee said, "a chance for him to let them see him for who he is and possibly decide to support him." The effort paid off: J.P. Morgan executives have donated $56,250 to McCain's campaign, two-thirds of which came after his Utah appearance. And his visit there was quickly followed up by dozens of smaller private meetings with corporate executives in New York City arranged by leading Wall Street figures.
"We tried to get him around to a lot of those kinds of things," said McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. "We were very much in the friend-making business."
It is common for politicians to court big money during a campaign. But private schmooze sessions such as the gathering in Utah pose a particular dilemma for McCain, who has spent a long career decrying "special interests" and politicians who offer special access to them in order to raise money. As a presidential candidate this year, McCain has found himself assiduously courting both lobbyists and their wealthy clients, offering them private audiences as part of his fundraising. He also counts more than 30 lobbyists among his chief fundraisers, more than any other presidential contender.
McCain has consistently fought in the Senate against pork-barrel spending from such interests and championed laws to restrict their lobbying and political donations. But his aides bridle at the notion that he might favor his big contributors. "There's never been anybody who's done more to rein in special interests and lobbyists than John McCain," Davis said. "If you give to him, you know there's no quid pro quo. People give to him because they want him to be president of the United States. They can't be motivated by any other reason."
McCain began his anti-special-interest drive two decades ago after he and four other senators were accused of trying to influence bank regulators on behalf of donor Charles Keating, a savings and loan financier later convicted of securities fraud. The Senate ethics committee said McCain had used "poor judgment" but also said his actions "were not improper" and did not merit punishment.
Ever since, McCain has made high ethical standards a hallmark of his public persona. In his 2002 memoir, he wrote that "money does buy access in Washington, and access increases influence that often results in benefiting the few at the expense of the many." Just this month in Detroit, he told reporters that he had "never done any favors for anybody -- lobbyist or special interest group -- that's a clear, 24-year record."
Nonetheless, a recent study by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute and the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen found that McCain has more lobbyists raising funds for his presidential bid than do any of his rivals. He has 32 "bundlers" of donations who are lobbyists. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) is the closest to him with 29 lobbyist bundlers, followed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) with 18.
McCain's campaign has also been guided by lobbyists. Davis, the campaign manager, is a former lobbyist who represented major telecommunications companies. The campaign's senior adviser is Charles R. Black Jr., chairman of BKSH & Associates, which represents drug companies, an oil company, an automaker, a telecommunications company, defense contractors and the steel industry, among others.
Former congressman Tom Loeffler (R-Tex.) was brought in to shore up the campaign's finances and operations. Yet he maintains his day job as chairman of the Loeffler Group, whose clients include oil, auto and telecommunications companies, as well as a tobacco firm and an airline.
Other occasional McCain advisers include lobbyists Timothy P. McKone of AT&T, Robert S. Aiken of Phoenix-based Pinnacle West Capital, John W. Timmons of the Cormac Group and John Green of Ogilvy Government Relations. Also at Ogilvy is a major McCain fundraiser, Wayne L. Berman.
Their firms' clients have been a significant source of contributions to McCain's campaign. Executives for the clients of Ogilvy Government Relations gave at least $271,000 for McCain's presidential bid. Loeffler Group client employees donated $118,500, according to a Washington Post analysis. BKSH clients' executives gave $24,000.
McCain has personally worked many corporate leaders this year as part of his money chase. At the Utah event, he put on a show for about 90 minutes, holding a "fireside chat" with public television talk show host Charlie Rose and answering pointed questions about his policies from the high-powered audience.
Similar, smaller events in New York City were organized by other well-known Wall Streeters, including Henry Kravis, John Thain and Lew Eisenberg -- all top McCain fundraisers in the presidential race.
McCain began the 2008 race as a Republican front-runner and quickly raised more than $30 million, boosted by large sums of GOP establishment money from such sources. But his prospects plunged by early summer and his campaign spent so heavily that it ran out of money, leaving him financially far behind rivals Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Giuliani. McCain jettisoned much of his campaign team over the summer and took a loan to bridge the financial gap, but in recent weeks he has begun to rebound in the polls, giving new life to his campaign and fundraising operation. "The money is coming in very heavily now," McCain boasted yesterday on ABC's "This Week."
Beyond his fundraising, McCain's conduct as chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee between 1997 and 2004 has occasionally raised questions about whether he took actions to benefit major contributors to his political network, which included his Senate and presidential campaign committees, his Straight Talk political action committee and a foundation that he helped start called the Reform Institute.
In 2003 and 2004, for example, McCain took two actions favorable to Cablevision, the cable TV company, while Davis, his chief political strategist at the time, solicited the company for a total of $200,000 for the Reform Institute, a tax-exempt group that advocated an end to outsize political donations.
Davis solicited an initial donation from Cablevision chief Charles Dolan a week after Dolan testified before the Senate Commerce Committee in favor of a position backed by McCain. Davis said there was no connection between the testimony and the solicitation.
Less than a year later, McCain wrote to the Federal Communications Commission recommending Cablevision's position on cable pricing, citing Dolan by name. Cablevision followed soon thereafter with a second $100,000 donation, the Associated Press reported.
In 1999, McCain wrote a letter as committee chairman on behalf of longtime political supporter Lowell "Bud" Paxson, urging the FCC to vote on a long-delayed decision whether to approve the sale of a Pittsburgh television station to Paxson's company. McCain had flown on Paxson's corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events around that time, and had received $20,000 from campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm, the Boston Globe reported. The FCC chairman at the time, William Kennard, called McCain's intervention "highly unusual," but the senator denied doing any favors.