By Matthew Mosk and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 13, 2008
Sen. John McCain's top foreign policy adviser prepped his boss for an April 17 phone call with the president of Georgia and then helped the presumptive Republican presidential nominee prepare a strong statement of support for the fledgling republic.
The day of the call, a lobbying firm partly owned by the adviser, Randy Scheunemann, signed a $200,000 contract to continue providing strategic advice to the Georgian government in Washington.
The McCain campaign said Georgia's lobbying contract with Orion Strategies had no bearing on the candidate's decision to speak with President Mikheil Saakashvili and did not influence his statement. "The Embassy of Georgia requested the call," said campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.
But ethics experts have raised concerns about former lobbyists for foreign governments providing advice to presidential candidates about those same countries. "The question is, who is the client? Is the adviser loyal to income from a foreign client, or is he loyal to the candidate he is working for now?" said James Thurber, a lobbying expert at American University. "It's dangerous if you're getting advice from people who are very close to countries on one side or another of a conflict."
At the time of McCain's call, Scheunemann had formally ceased his own lobbying work for Georgia, according to federal disclosure reports. But he was still part of Orion Strategies, which had only two lobbyists, himself and Mike Mitchell.
Scheunemann remained with the firm for another month, until May 15, when the McCain campaign imposed a tough new anti-lobbyist policy and he was required to separate himself from the company.
Rogers said Scheunemann "receives no compensation of any type from Orion Strategies and has not since May 15, 2008." Scheunemann declined to be interviewed for this story.
As a private lobbyist trying to influence lawmakers and Bush administration staffers, Scheunemann at times relied on his access to McCain in his work for foreign clients on Capitol Hill. He and his partner reported 71 phone conversations and meetings with McCain and his top advisers since 2004 on behalf of foreign clients, including Georgia, according to forms they filed with the Justice Department.
The contacts often focused on Georgia's aspirations to join NATO and on legislative proposals, including a measure co-sponsored by McCain that supported Georgia's position on South Ossetia, one of the Georgian regions taken over by Russia this weekend.
Another measure lobbied by Orion and co-sponsored by McCain, the NATO Freedom Consolidation Act of 2006, would have authorized a $10 million grant for Georgia.
For months while McCain's presidential campaign was gearing up, Scheunemann held dual roles, advising the candidate on foreign policy while working as Georgia's lobbyist. Between Jan. 1, 2007, and May 15, 2008, the campaign paid Scheunemann nearly $70,000 to provide foreign policy advice. During the same period, the government of Georgia paid his firm $290,000 in lobbying fees.
Since 2004, Orion has collected $800,000 from the government of Georgia.
Rogers said Orion's representation of Georgia had no bearing on McCain's decision to speak with Saakashvili in April. "The Embassy of Georgia requested the call because of Georgian concerns over recent Russian actions dealing with South Ossetia and Abkhazia," he said.
McCain has said that he has worked closely with Georgia and its top officials since the mid-1990s. On the campaign trail yesterday, McCain referred to Saakashvili as a close friend.
But Rogers acknowledged that "Scheunemann and others on the foreign policy staff are involved in call requests and statements on foreign policy issues."
After the April call, McCain issued a statement that day voicing support for Georgia's position.
"We must not allow Russia to believe it has a free hand to engage in policies that undermine Georgian sovereignty," McCain said in the statement. "Georgia has acted with restraint in its response and should continue to do so."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it may be impossible to know whether Scheunemann's advice to McCain was truly unvarnished.
"The question is, whose views are you really espousing?" Sloan said. "Are they really your own views, or are they the views that are bought and paid for by the clients of your top aides? McCain probably would be sympathetic to Georgia regardless, but having a guy like Scheunemann as a top aide raises questions."
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, said Scheunemann's business ties to Georgia raise questions about how much he influenced McCain's position on the Georgia conflict.
"It's these sorts of appearances of a conflict of interest that are a natural consequence of having a campaign run by lobbyists, staffed by lobbyists and being ensconced in a lobbyist culture for over a quarter of a century," Sevugan said.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.