McCain lobbyist ties ruffled aides in 1999
John McCain's aides confronted a female telecommunications lobbyist in late 1999 and asked her to distance herself from the Arizona senator...
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — John McCain's aides confronted a female telecommunications lobbyist in late 1999 and asked her to distance herself from the Arizona senator during the presidential campaign he was about to launch, according to one of McCain's longest-serving political strategists.
John Weaver, who served as McCain's closest confidant until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman at the Center Cafe in 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 story on its Web site Wednesday night detailing McCain's ties to Iseman.
Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman's access and privately warning her away, several people involved in the campaign told The New York Times on the condition of anonymity. McCain, now 71, and Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship, according to the newspaper.
"It's a shame that The New York Times has chosen to smear John McCain like this," said Charles Black, a top adviser to McCain's 2008 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."
The McCain campaign released a statement Wednesday night decrying "gutter politics" and saying the story — which had been reported on the Drudge Report Web site in December — was "a hit-and-run smear campaign."
McCain defended his integrity in December, after he was questioned about reports that his aides had been trying to dissuade The New York Times from publishing the story.
"I've never done any favors for anybody — lobbyist or special-interest group. That's a clear, 24-year record," he told reporters in Detroit.
Iseman, who joined the Arlington, Va.-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, Tribune Broadcasting and Paxson Communications, according to several other lobbyists who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
McCain, after his unsuccessful 2000 campaign, has emerged as the 2008 presumed Republican presidential nominee.
His reputation as a crusader for Washington reform — forged during almost 30 years in the Senate — largely is based on his stinging critiques of the role played by lobbyists. He routinely decries earmarks, or special pork projects inserted into legislation. He has claimed repeatedly that he has "never, ever" done a favor for anyone. 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."
Iseman could not be reached at her home or office Wednesday night. But in The New York Times story, Iseman wrote in an e-mail that "I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people,' that had made their way 'back to' him." The New York Times reported that she said she never received special treatment from McCain or his office.
Three telecom lobbyists and a former McCain aide, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Iseman spoke up regularly at meetings of telecom lobbyists in Washington, extolling her connections to McCain.
Her partners at Alcalde & Fay include L.A. "Skip" Bafalis, a former five-term Republican congressman from Florida, and Michael Brown, the son of former Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown and a former Democratic candidate for mayor of Washington, D.C.
The firm's 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 "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 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.
Iseman clients have contributed nearly $85,000 to McCain campaigns since 2000, according to records at the Federal Election Commission.
McCain and four other senators were accused two decades ago of trying to influence banking regulators on behalf of Charles Keating, a savings and loan financier later convicted of securities fraud. The Senate Ethics Committee said McCain had used "poor judgment" but that his actions "were not improper" and warranted no penalty.
Washington Post staff writer James V. Grimaldi and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report. Information also was provided by The Associated Press.
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