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McCain's Role in Plane Pact Spotlights Ties to Lobbyists

By Michael D. Shear and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

To show that he's a crusader against wasteful spending and congressional corruption, Sen. John McCain repeatedly brags about his leading role in stopping a scandal-plagued air tanker contract between the Air Force and Boeing in 2004.

Four years later, a $35 billion contract has been awarded to Europe's Airbus consortium to build the latest generation of tanker planes. The decision has sparked anger from Boeing's congressional supporters and critics of outsourcing. It has also focused attention on McCain's reliance on lobbyists in his campaign for president because his finance chairman and several other top advisers lobbied for Airbus last year when it was in fierce competition with Boeing for the Air Force contract.

McCain has spoken out for years against the influence of special interests in Washington, but his campaign includes a number of prominent Washington lobbyists, including campaign manager Rick Davis, who founded a lobbying firm, and top political adviser, Charles R. Black Jr., chief executive of a well-known Washington firm. Neither of them lobbied for Airbus.

McCain finance chairman Thomas G. Loeffler and Susan E. Nelson, who left Loeffler's lobbying firm to be McCain's finance director, both began lobbying for Airbus's parent company in 2007, Senate records show. William L. Ball III, a former secretary of the Navy and frequent McCain surrogate on the trail, also lobbied for Airbus, as did John Green, who recently took a leave from Ogilvy Public Relations to serve as McCain's legislative liaison.

"Airbus, I have to give them credit," said R. Thomas Buffenbarger, the president of the International Association of Machinists, which represents Boeing employees. "They know they need that kind of lobbying help. And they went after people who could deliver."

It is not clear what specifically the McCain campaign advisers did for Airbus. Lobbying registration documents list only "initiatives and interests regarding the KC-30 Aerial Refueling Tanker Program." Loeffler did not respond to e-mail requests for an interview.

McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said the senator from Arizona and his advisers have done "nothing improper" in the tanker deal. "John McCain was never personally lobbied on this issue," she said.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Washington state, where Boeing has long had a significant presence, have lambasted McCain for laying the groundwork for a decision that will cost their economy thousands of aerospace jobs. Lawmakers in Kansas, where Boeing has a plant, have also been critical.

On the campaign trail, McCain hails his involvement in the years-long search for a modern tanker as clear evidence of his commitment to rooting out special interests. In 2004, he led the congressional investigation that uncovered a bribery scandal in which top Boeing and Air Force officials went to prison or were forced to resign.

"I saved the taxpayers $6 billion in a bogus tanker deal," McCain said during a recent debate.

But the easy applause line at his town hall meetings has become a much murkier issue for the presidential hopeful.

McCain has confirmed sending two letters to Defense Department officials urging them to level the playing field for a deal that would provide a fleet of in-air refueling planes for military aircraft. In one 2006 letter, McCain urged officials to change their criteria for evaluating bidders for the tanker contract.

"I am concerned that if the Air Force proceeds down its chosen path . . . the Air Force will risk eliminating competition before bids are submitted," he wrote in September of that year. "In my view, this is not in the best interests of either the taxpayer or the warfighter."

McCain has steadfastly said that his role in the process has been one of a neutral arbiter. Yesterday, McCain told reporters that he had "nothing to do" with the winning Airbus contract other than insisting on a fair process.

"I think my record is very clear on this issue, including a paper trail of letters that we wrote to the Department of Defense during this process and saying clearly and unequivocally we just want a fair process and we don't want a repeat of the previous process," McCain said Monday in St. Louis, according to the Associated Press, which first reported that McCain's advisers lobbied for Airbus. "I think my record on this issue is very clear and authenticated by both written and verbal statements on the issue," McCain said.

McCain's spokeswoman said the senator sent the letters months before the Airbus group hired his advisers.

"John McCain uncovered a taxpayer rip-off that led to Boeing and USAF officials being convicted of corruption," Hazelbaker said in an e-mail. "They were sent to jail. The CEO of Boeing resigned. McCain saved the tax payers $6 billion dollars. And somehow he's the bad guy?"

But some McCain critics say the deal creates the appearance of hypocrisy.

Airbus parent EADS North America more than tripled its contributions to U.S. lawmakers after 2004, as it pursued the Air Force contract, according to an analysis done by the Center for Responsive Politics. McCain was the top individual recipient of contributions from company employees and the company's political action committee in the 2008 election cycle.

"This isn't your average Washington politician. It's John McCain, crusader against special interests and presidential contender," said Sheila Krumholz, CRP executive director. "It's more than purely coincidental that he was their top target."

Staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum contributed to this report.

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