McCain releases letters to regulators

Candidate says he wrote to protect consumers and prod agencies to act


WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain of Arizona released hundreds of letters yesterday that he has sent to federal agencies under the jurisdiction of his powerful Senate committee, including more than a dozen involving the businesses of contributors to his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

McCain said he was acting to defuse criticism of his interventions before the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of companies regulated by that agency, one of many supervised by the Commerce Committee, which he has headed since 1997.

In sheer volume, the release of more than two years of committee correspondence was both a remarkable display of openness and an effort to show that there was nothing unusual in what McCain has done by writing to agencies that regulate the companies whose employees have supported his campaign.

"If people view them in their entirety, they will see that I have acted on one fundamental principle, to protect the consumer," the senator said yesterday while on a campaign swing through South Carolina. "The overwhelming majority of these communications are: `Please act, please act.' "

McCain's actions have drawn attention because he has made campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his presidential bid. He has had to defend his actions at length in televised presidential debates in the past few days.

When asked yesterday whether the disclosures had thrown him off stride, he said, "The key to a successful campaign is not to let it." He added: "Don't get defensive; don't let it divert you."

Among the documents McCain released were 15 letters that mentioned or sought help for companies or individuals who had contributed more than $2,000 to his presidential campaign.

In addition, the Commerce Committee staff released about 500 other letters and correspondence to agencies on behalf of constituents and others who had given less than $2,000 or had not given McCain any money.

As part of his effort to disclose any of his attempts to intervene with regulators, McCain plans to ask government agencies tomorrow to release all the letters he has written to them since he entered Congress in 1983, his staff members said.

It is not the first time that the senator, who is often described as a political maverick, has responded to criticism with a torrent of documents. Not long ago, he released hundreds of pages of medical records, including psychological evaluations done after his release from a prisoner of war camp in Vietnam.

McCain's disclosures yesterday were designed to address inquiries that began when it was reported that he had written letters to the Federal Communications Commission in November and December seeking a speedy vote on a complex swap of television station licenses in Pittsburgh that would enable the company of a McCain contributor to buy one of the stations in the only big market where it lacks one.

McCain sent the letters after he and his aides had met with and received more than $20,000 in contributions from executives for the company, Paxson Communications, and lobbyists. The head of the company, Lowell Paxson, had also lent McCain his corporate jet four times last year for campaign travel.

McCain has said that he did nothing wrong in the Paxson case, but the question has taken on additional importance in the presidential campaign in large part because the senator has made cleaning up the corrosive influence of campaign donations a key issue.

In addition, McCain's willingness to intervene with regulators on licensing and other technical issues that relate to pending deals for specific companies, rather than limiting himself to broader policy matters, has prompted criticism.

McCain seems somewhat vulnerable on that score, as his greatest political crisis came more than a decade ago after he intervened with regulators on behalf of a campaign contributor, Charles H. Keating Jr., an Arizona executive whose savings and loan failed at a cost to taxpayers of $2 billion. A Senate ethics investigation concluded that McCain had exhibited poor judgment but had not violated ethics rules. Still, McCain was branded as one of the "Keating Five," lawmakers whose careers were clouded by the savings and loan investigation.

Officials from both the McCain campaign and the Senate committee stressed that McCain's letters to the FCC were sometimes sent without prompting from lobbyists and contributors and that they reflected McCain's longtime policy positions. Some were written jointly with other members of the Commerce panel, including Democrats.

In a letter Aug. 19, 1998, to William Kennard, the FCC chairman, McCain expressed concern about a court ruling that restricted satellite television service providers from distributing network programming.

He took the side that benefited satellite television providers such as EchoStar Communications, a company based in Denver that along with its employees has contributed $18,000 to his campaign.

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