Senator's niche image takes a hit

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 1/7/2000

enator John McCain's campaign completed plans for a Florida fund-raising event sponsored by the founder of Paxson Communications just days before McCain wrote the first of two letters insisting that federal regulators vote on an issue that benefited the company, a spokesman for McCain acknowledged last night.

McCain cancel ed the event, which was scheduled for tomorrow and would have raised an estimated $50,000, after the Globe reported on Wednesday that McCain interceded with the Federal Communications Commission at the urging of Paxson's lobbyist. Lowell Paxson and his associates had funneled $20,000 to McCain's campaign earlier in the year.

Howard Opinsky, the McCain spokesman, said Paxson first made the offer to hold a fund-raiser last summer, but that a final agreement and a date were not set until roughly Nov. 7 or 8. On Nov. 17, McCain wrote his first letter asking the FCC to vote on a Pittsburgh television license transfer that benefited Paxson, the nation's largest network of independent stations.

Opinsky denied that McCain's willingness to write that letter, and a more demanding letter on Dec. 10, was in any way related to Paxson's willingness to raise funds for McCain.

McCain this week cance led the event, saying he did not want there to be ''an appearance of impropriety.'' But Opinsky said McCain will probably accept donations that might still come from those who planned to attend the scrubbed event.

As McCain sought to deflect attention from the issue, campaign finance specialists said McCain's actions in the Paxson case are a more vivid example of the special interest stranglehold on Washington decision-making than the public denunciations of the system that have become a staple of his campaign.

McCain's intercession with federal regulators on behalf of a major contributor ''is a flagrant example of how corrupt the system is. And the evidence clearly suggests there was a quid pro quo involved,'' said Nick Nyhart, the deputy director of Public Campaign, which supports overhauls even more sweeping than McCain's proposals.

Larry Makinson, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group that tracks campaign finances, said that McCain's campaign rhetoric has left the impression that he ''got religion'' on the evils of the system years back. Said Makinson: ''This incident is the equivalent of an ex-drinker picking up a bottle of scotch on the way home from a temperance meeting.''

On Wednesday, the Globe reported that McCain used his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to pressure the FCC to act on the television license transfer that benefited Paxson. McCain, his aides acknowledged, acted at the request of Paxson's lobbyist after Paxson, officials of his company, their family members, and 13 members of his law firm donated about $20,000 to McCain's presidential campaign.

The senator's intercession came just before he and former senator Bill Bradley held a public meeting in New Hampshire on Dec. 16 to denounce the influence of special interests. During the same period, McCain took advantage of a loophole in federal law to use Paxson's corporate jet four times for campaign trips.

McCain has said, and he repeated yesterday, that his intent in urging the FCC vote was merely to spur an agency known to linger over regulatory decisions, and that he did not advocate a particular outcome in the case. Nevertheless, FCC officials have told the Globe that it seemed clear to them that McCain wanted the outcome that favored Paxson. And his demand in a Dec. 10 letter that the five FCC commissioners vote or explain to him why they would not prompted FCC chairman William E. Kennard to warn McCain that his request was inappropriate.

The Globe also reported that last May, McCain accused the FCC of bias against Ameritech and SBC Communications, two Baby Bells that were seeking approval of their merger. Just before his May letter, officials and lobbyists for the two companies helped him raise almost $120,000.

With the issue raised anew at last night's GOP debate in Durham, N.H., political analysts were divided yesterday on whether the disclosures would hurt the image McCain has carefully honed, that of a maverick reformer.

Eddie Mahe, a Republican political consultant who has known McCain for years, said the damage to McCain's candidacy may be minimal because few voters have begun to pay attention to the presidential race and, outside New Hampshire, McCain has yet to establish himself as a serious contender for the GOP nomination.

Even so, Mahe said, ''To the extent that he is running as the outsider, as the maverick, as the person who will come in and clean the joint out, this has to undermine his credibility.''

''When something like this makes him look hypocritical,'' added Dean Spiliotes, a Dartmouth College government professor, ''it's difficult to know how the voters will react.'' In New Hampshire, McCain has generated enormous good will with Republican primary voters, Spiliotes said, and the political damage may be minor in the absence of any further disclosures.

McCain's political problem, said Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, ''is not that he's the first politician to write that kind of letter. But he is the first politician to write that kind of letter while crusading against politicians who go to bat for their political contributors.''

The controversy has also focused attention on the use of corporate jets by federal elected officials, a practice that is allowed under federal election law although it is widely viewed as a way for corporations to subsidize officials they support. Under the law, the officials and those traveling with them have to reimburse the company for first-class airfare, though that is usually substantially less than the actual costs of the flights.

In addition to McCain, Bradley also takes advantage of the perquisite.

Yesterday, Senator John F. Kerry, a Democrat who is a friend of McCain, said he believes the practice should be banned.

''It's within the law but the law ought to be changed,'' Kerry said in an interview with Globe editors and reporters. ''We shouldn't be able to make those kinds of arrangements.''

Kerry said he has only rarely used such corporate flights himself. ''I've always been uncomfortable with them,'' he said.

As for McCain using the Paxson jet even as he raised the company's issue at the FCC, Kerry said: ''I think his campaign was insensitive to that. At this point in time, I think that was a mistake for his campaign.''

Charles Radin and John Ellement of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.