McCain’s Beltway Ethics

The Washington Post has a front page story this morning that details the intense lobbying effort that persuaded Sen. John McCain to support a land swap in Arizona that benefited one of his principal fundraisers at the expense of the government. A gaggle of former McCain employees worked on the deal in which the government received remote acres of forest in exchange for prime real estate capable of development. Lots of people are going to get rich from the scheme, but the U.S. taxpayer got stuck with the bill. This is business as usual in Washington. And, sadly, it is business as usual for John McCain too. He has voiced his opposition to the "revolving door" syndrome of former government officials cashing in on their connections by becoming lobbyists. Yet in the Arizona land swap, he was lobbied by Mark Buse, who has just returned to McCain’s Senate staff, another former Senate staffer, a former campaign manager and Kurt Davis, a lobbyist who has raised money for McCain’s campaigns. Another beneficiary of the deal, longtime McCain supporter Steven Betts, has already raised north of $100,000 for McCain’s presidential bid. "It was just a bad deal – a rip-off to the public," Janine Blaeloch of the Western Lands Project told the Post. This is probably why the normal regulatory procedures for land swaps had to be circumvented and an alternative legislative remedy sought. McCain backed a similar land swap in the 1990s involving the Tonto National Forest and property owned by another political contributor. A spokesman for Arizona’s Sierra Club said that despite McCain’s reputation as a conservationist, "When the public trust intersects with private interests, basically, he has favored land development." Arizona land swaps are not McCain’s first brush with ethical problems. McCain was one of the "Keating Five" a group of senators who were investigated and reprimanded by their colleagues for their questionable intervention on behalf of a struggling Savings and Loan operator, Charles Keating. Not coincidentally, Keating had invested in McCain’s campaigns and given him and his family nine free rides on his corporate jet, three of them vacations to Keating’s private retreat at Cat Cay in the Bahamas.Cost to the federal government when Keating’s S & L collapsed? More than three billion dollars. McCain recovered from the scandal and went on to become a champion of campaign finance reform. Everybody loves a convert. None of this is likely to cost McCain much. Most voters, especially most Independent voters who lack strong ideological convictions, expect at least low-level corruption from their politicians. And, few people can get their heads around the facts of the case: can you close your eyes and envision 35,000 acres? Have you ever witnessed a lobbying effort? Have you ever raised money for a political campaign with a view towards securing a private benefit from a public trust? Me neither. Scandals work when they are precise. George Bush could get away with his argument that the ballooning federal deficit did not matter, but he could not get away with the documented incompetence of his subordinates after Hurricane Katrina. Few people understand the federal budget, but everyone has worked with someone like ex-FEMA head Michael Brown. So, the scandal of business-as-usual will continue in Washington and it is not likely to tar McCain’s presidential bid. True, Obama has refused to take donations from federal lobbyists but that is not the kind of issue that drives voters. Still, the press should be a bit more suspicious of McCain’s claims to being a reformer: there appears to still be plenty of room in his political camp for influence peddlers and fortune seekers who care nothing for the public trust. Michael Sean Winters
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