McCain under fire for helping donor

Reform advocate questioned over aid to major contributor

January 07, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain has grinned and gritted his way through the past two days of his presidential campaign, defending his intervention on behalf of one of his major donors by saying he would help anyone similarly stymied by federal bureaucrats.

But the case of Paxson Communications suggests how monied interests with connections can wield outsized influence even on advocates of campaign finance reform -- such as McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Democrat from Southern Maryland.

The controversy centers on a complex transaction, proposed more than two years ago, that would allow Paxson to gain a foothold in the Pittsburgh television market. The transaction required the approval of the Federal Communications Commission.

McCain was peppered with questions last night about the propriety of letters he wrote in November and December pressuring the FCC to act swiftly on the long-delayed Paxson deal. His letters demanded action by Dec. 15 -- two weeks before the deal would collapse -- though he took pains not to ask the FCC to take any specific action.

Although the FCC approved the transfer in mid-December on a split vote, the panel's chairman, William E. Kennard, rebuked McCain, writing that he was interfering in the process.

The company's officials and lobbyists have given more than $20,000 to McCain, who, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, oversees issues that affect broadcast companies such as Paxson. McCain has also flown to campaign events on Paxson's jets at sharply reduced rates.

In response to questions about the deal at the Republican presidential debate last night, McCain was unapologetic. "We've had enormous problems with the FCC," McCain said. "My job is to make the bureaucracy work for the people.

"This was a decision that had been delayed for over 700 days," McCain said. "People deserve to know the answer."

In a complicated maneuver, Paxson was seeking to acquire a TV channel that belonged to WQED, a struggling public station. A Paxson lobbyist had recruited Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Clinton, to support the deal. Davis, a lobbyist formally hired by WQED, then approached a handful of Democrats, including Hoyer.

Davis had a specific target in mind for Hoyer's attention: Susan Ness, one of five FCC commissioners and a Maryland Democrat whose reappointment to the panel is being reviewed by McCain's committee.

In an August 1999 letter to Ness, Hoyer urged the FCC to approve the deal quickly, saying it represented the best hope to preserve WQED's finances and public television in Pittsburgh.

"Such administrative delay, particularly in this instance where prompt action can bring multiple benefits to the residents of Pittsburgh, is unacceptable," Hoyer wrote. "It is difficult to understand why the commission has not granted these applications before now."

Hoyer was out of town and not available to comment yesterday. Through an aide, Ness declined to comment. But Debra DeShong, a Hoyer spokeswoman, said that to her knowledge, Hoyer had never accepted rides on Paxson jets or campaign contributions from company executives. Campaign documents show no such gifts.

Yet Hoyer maintains long-standing ties with Davis' firm, Patton, Boggs. Last year, Hoyer's political action committee, which is separate from his campaign account, received $3,645 from lobbyists there, records show.

Also, the broadcasters' political action committee in which Paxson executives have been active gave $15,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last year. Hoyer is a prodigious fund-raiser for the DCCC, which tries to elect Democrats to the House.

McCain and Hoyer favor campaign finance reform legislation that, in the Senate, was sponsored by McCain. The bill would have eliminated the use of soft money -- unregulated campaign donations that allow corporations, unions and wealthy individuals to contribute unrestricted sums toward federal races.

Because of McCain's vigorous advocacy of the campaign finance legislation, his involvement in the Paxson deal has drawn sharp scrutiny.

"He's not doing this because he thinks this is in the best interest of consumers," said Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group. "He's doing this because special interests have contacted him, and he's responding."

Yet people active in Washington -- from the lobbyists who make their money from the system to those who unstintingly condemn it -- say that, like McCain and Hoyer, many lawmakers advocate on behalf of corporations or constituents who become frustrated by bureaucratic snags.

"This guy's not doing anything unusual," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist and former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. "It's become an issue because he's running on a platform of civic rectitude."

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