By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain sought to resolve an old problem -- the lack of cellphone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, Ariz., nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley.
Over the past year, she offered land for a permanent cell tower, and Verizon Wireless embarked on an expensive public process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits.
Verizon ultimately abandoned its effort to install a permanent tower in August. Company spokesman Jeffrey Nelson said the project would be "an inappropriate way" to build its network. "It doesn't make business sense for us to do that," he added.
Instead, Verizon delivered a portable tower known as a "cell site on wheels" -- free of charge -- to the McCain property in June, after the Secret Service began inquiring about improving coverage in the area. Such devices are used for providing temporary capacity where coverage is lacking or has been knocked out, in circumstances ranging from the Super Bowl to hurricanes.
In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon's offer. "This is an unusual situation," AT&T spokeswoman Claudia B. Jones said. "You can't have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage."
Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is a senior member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunication services.
McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon. Former McCain staff member Robert Fisher is an in-house lobbyist for Verizon and is volunteering for the campaign. Fisher, Verizon chief executive Ivan G. Seidenberg and company lobbyists have raised more than $1.3 million for McCain's presidential effort, and Verizon employees are among the top 20 corporate donors over McCain's political career, giving his campaigns more than $155,000.
McCain's Senate chief of staff Mark Buse, senior strategist Charles R. Black Jr. and several other campaign staff members have registered as AT&T lobbyists in the past. AT&T Executive Vice President Timothy McKone and AT&T lobbyists have raised more than $2.3 million for McCain. AT&T employees have donated more than $325,000 to the Republican's campaigns, putting the company in the No. 3 spot for career donations to McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
"It raises the aura of special consideration for somebody because he is a member of the Senate," said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats and an ethics lawyer who represents politicians in both parties.
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said that the senator is not a regulator and that Cindy McCain received no favors from Verizon or AT&T.
"Mrs. McCain's staff went through the Web site as any member of the general public would -- no string-pulling, no phone calls, no involvement of Senate staff," Rogers said. "Just because she is married to a senator doesn't mean she forfeits her right to ask for cell service as any other Verizon customer can."
Verizon spokesman Nelson said: "I am not going to talk about individual customers and their requests."
The company navigated a lengthy county regulatory process that hit a snag on environmental concerns. The request ultimately prevailed when a contractor for the company invoked the Secret Service after John McCain secured the Republican nomination.
After checking with Verizon and the McCain campaign, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said an e-mail sent in May by the service's technology manager could be perceived as a request for temporary coverage under the service's contract with Verizon.
"This was something that was being addressed before we were out there," Zahren said. The agency could have made do with existing cell coverage in the area, he said, because it uses multiple layers of communication, including a secure land radio network. Zahren said the contractor was not authorized to invoke the Secret Service in dealings with the county.
Documents that The Washington Post obtained from Arizona's Yavapai County under state public records law show how Verizon hired contractors to put a tower on the property. At that point, many counted McCain out of the race.
On Sept. 18, 2007, a contractor in Mesa, Ariz., working for Verizon surveyed the McCain property. Another contractor drafted blueprints that called for moving a utility shed and installing a 40-foot tower with two antennas and a microwave dish, surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence.
Construction costs would be $22,000, records show. Industry specialists said the figure probably covers only the tower and fence because the antennas, dish and power source would run the cost into the six figures. On Dec. 4, Cindy McCain signed a letter authorizing Verizon Wireless to act on her behalf to seek county land-use permits.
Coverage maps that a Verizon contractor submitted to the county show that the tower would fill gaps in unpopulated parts of Coconino National Forest and on about 20 parcels of land, including a handful of residences, and two small businesses open by appointment only.
"It is fairly sparsely populated in that pocket along Oak Creek," said Kathy Houchin, the Yavapai County permitting manager.
Three telecommunications specialists The Post consulted said the proposed site covers so few users that it would be unlikely to generate enough traffic to justify the investment. Robb Alarcon, an industry specialist who helps plan tower placement, said the proposed location appears to be a "strategic build," free-of-charge coverage to high-priority customers. A former Verizon executive vice president, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he worked for the company, agreed with Alarcon, saying, "It was a VIP kind of thing."
Verizon spokesman Nelson declined to comment when asked whether this had been considered a "strategic build."
Cindy McCain signed a contract with Verizon on May 6, granting free use of her property for a year in exchange for "the benefits of enhanced wireless communications arising from operation of the Facility."
Over Memorial Day, McCain hosted potential vice presidential running mates at the ranch, but the area still lacked coverage. Richard Klenner, then the wireless communications chief of the Secret Service, which had recently started providing protection, sent an e-mail to Verizon.
"Is there any way of speeding up the process?" he asked, adding that he wanted Verizon to "explore every possible means of providing an alternative cellular or data communications source in the referenced area and provide any short-term implementation of any type as a solution in the interim."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.