By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum and Michael D Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 21, 2008
Aides to Sen. John McCain confronted a telecommunications lobbyist in late 1999 and asked her to distance herself from the senator during the presidential campaign he was about to launch, according to one of McCain's longest-serving political strategists.
John Weaver, who was McCain's closest confidant until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman at the Center Cafe at Union Station and urged her to stay away from McCain. Association with a lobbyist would undermine his image as an opponent of special interests, aides had concluded.
Members of the senator's small circle of advisers also confronted McCain directly, according to sources, warning him that his continued ties to a lobbyist who had business before the powerful commerce committee he chaired threatened to derail his presidential ambitions.
The New York Times published a lengthy article on its Web site last night detailing McCain's ties to Iseman. "It's a shame that the New York Times has chosen to smear John McCain like this," said Charles R. Black Jr., a top adviser to McCain's current presidential campaign and the head of a Washington lobbying firm called BKSH & Associates. "Neither Senator McCain nor the campaign will dignify false rumors and gossip by responding to them. John McCain has never done favors for anyone, not lobbyists or any special interest. That's a clear 24-year record."
The McCain team issued a statement last night decrying "gutter politics" and saying the story -- which had been reported on the Drudge Report Web site in December -- was a "a hit and run smear campaign."
Iseman, 40, who joined the Arlington-based firm of Alcalde & Fay as a secretary and rose to partner within a few years, often touted her access to the chairman of the Senate commerce committee as she worked on behalf of clients such as Cablevision, EchoStar and Tribune Broadcasting, according to several other lobbyists who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
McCain, after his unsuccessful 2000 campaign, has emerged as the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. His reputation as a crusader for Washington reform -- forged during almost 30 years in the Senate -- is based largely on his stinging critiques of the role played by lobbyists. He routinely decries earmarks, or pet projects, inserted into legislation. He has repeatedly maintained that he has "never, ever done a favor for any lobbyist or special interest group." It was this reputation that McCain's closest aides sought to protect.
"We were running a campaign about reforming Washington, and her showing up at events and saying she had close ties to McCain was harmful," one aide said.
The aide said the message to Iseman that day at Union Station in 1999 was clear: "She should get lost." The aide said Iseman stood up and left angrily.
Iseman could not be reached at her home or office last night. But she told the Times via e-mail that "I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people,' that had made their way 'back to' him." The Times reported that she said she never received special treatment from the senator from Arizona or his office.
Three telecom lobbyists and a former McCain aide, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that Iseman spoke up regularly at meetings of telecom lobbyists in Washington, extolling her connections to McCain and his office. She would regularly volunteer at those meetings to be the point person for the telecom industry in dealing with McCain's office.
Concern about Iseman's presence around McCain at one point led to her being banned from his Senate office, according to sources close to McCain. Senior McCain aide Mark Salter, in an e-mail, denied that Iseman was ever barred from the office or was even a frequent presence there.
Iseman's bio on her lobbying firm's Web site notes, "She has extensive experience in telecommunications, representing corporations before the House and Senate Commerce Committees."
Her partners at Alcalde & Fay include L.A. "Skip" Bafalis, a former five-term Republican congressman from Florida, and Michael A. Brown, the son of former commerce secretary Ronald H. Brown and a former Democratic candidate for mayor of the District.
Its client list is heavy with municipalities and local government entities, which suggests that its major emphasis is on the controversial business of winning narrowly targeted, or "earmarked," appropriations.
In the years that McCain chaired the commerce committee, Iseman lobbied for Lowell W. "Bud" Paxson, the head of what used to be Paxson Communications, now Ion Media Networks, and was involved in a successful lobbying campaign to persuade McCain and other members of Congress to send letters to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of Paxson.
In late 1999, McCain wrote two letters to the FCC urging a vote on the sale to Paxson of a Pittsburgh television station. The sale had been highly contentious in Pittsburgh and involved a multipronged lobbying effort among the parties to the deal.
At the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson's corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm. The second letter came on Dec. 10, a day after the company's jet ferried him to a Florida fundraiser that was held aboard a yacht in West Palm Beach.
McCain has argued that the letters merely urged a decision and did not call for action on Paxson's behalf. But when the letters became public, William E. Kennard, chairman of the FCC at the time, denounced them as "highly unusual" coming from McCain, whose committee chairmanship gave him oversight of the agency.
McCain's campaign denied that Iseman or anyone else from her firm or from Paxson "discussed with Senator McCain" the FCC's consideration of the station deal. "Neither Ms. Iseman, nor any representative of Paxson and Alcalde and Fay, personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding," the campaign said.
Iseman and her firm, which includes high-profile Republicans and Democrats, have also represented a number of other companies that have had issues before McCain and the commerce committee, including Univision, a Spanish-language television network. Iseman clients have given nearly $85,000 to McCain campaigns since 2000, according to records at the Federal Election Commission.
Staff writer James V. Grimaldi and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.