March 8, 2005

Mr. Clean?

CQ reader TR points me to a breaking news item from the AP that alleges a conflict of interest for Senator John McCain. After a non-profit group closely associated with McCain and which pays a six-figure salary to one of his aides received $200,000 in donations from Cablevision, McCain wrote a letter of support to the FCC pushing Cablevision's regulatory positions:

Sen. John McCain pressed a cable company's case for pricing changes with regulators at the same time a tax-exempt group that he has worked with since its founding solicited $200,000 in contributions from the company.

Help from McCain, who argues for ridding politics of big money, included giving the CEO of Cablevision Systems Corp. the opportunity to testify before his Senate committee, writing a letter of support to the Federal Communication Commission and asking other cable companies to support so-called a la carte pricing.

McCain had expressed interest in exploring the a la carte option for years before Cablevision advocated it, but did not take a formal position with regulators until after the company's first donation came in. Cablevision is the eighth largest cable provider, serving about 3 million customers in the New York area.

Cablevision made two $100,000 donations to The Reform Institute in 2003 and 2004. The Reform Institute employs Rick Davis, who also works on McCain's staff as his chief political advisor, and they pay him $110,000 per year. The Reform Institute has often supported McCain, paid for events highlighting him and his agenda, presumably including campaign finance reform.

McCain told the AP that he sees nothing wrong with this arrangement:

"If it was a PAC (political action committee) or if it was somehow connected to any campaign of mine, I would say to you, that's a legitimate appearance of conflict of interest. But it's not," McCain told The Associated Press.

"There's not a conflict of interest when you're involved in an organization that is nonpartisan, nonprofit, nonpolitical."

Quite frankly, this stinks. Here we have a man who has done more harm to the First Amendment as anyone in the past generation, all the while scolding us on coordination of electoral efforts, and he's playing a shell game with Cablevision in order to gin up indirect payments to his staff. Davis claims that McCain didn't solicit the donations, but Davis did; according to his own account, he sought out the donation from Cablevision after hearing that they might be interested in funding The Reform Institute. Coincidentally, McCain starts writing letters and making phone calls on behalf of Cablevision shortly after the first installment gets cashed by Davis and the Reform Institute. Under the BCRA, this kind of activity would easily qualify as coordination if they had pulled off this stunt during an election. It may still qualify as a conflict of interest under federal law, and possibly an illegal campaign contribution.

John McCain sold out to Charles Keating fourteen years ago in the S&L scandals, and rebranded himself as an outsider and a reformer, blaming the system rather than himself for his actions. It now appears that McCain isn't the Mr. Clean he's sold to Arizona voters.

UPDATE: Corrected Reform Institute's name in several points.

UPDATE II: Why doesn't Cablevision appear on this list of donors? Perhaps because Cablevision hid the donations in its subsidiary, CSC Holdings. Notice that the Tides Foundation also donates to the RI, to the tune of over $50,000. Tides, of course, received millions of dollars from Teresa Heinz Kerry, meaning that Rick Davis -- McCain's chief political advisor -- benefits financially from the wife of the erstwhile Democratic nominee. No wonder McCain played footsie with Kerry about the VP slot for a while. (h/t: CQ reader JR Pascucci)

Front Page Magazine has more on Tides:

Teresa Heinz Kerry has financed the secretive Tides Foundation to the tune of more than $4 million over the years. The Tides Foundation, a charity established in 1976 by antiwar leftist activist Drummond Pike, distributes millions of dollars in grants every year to political organizations advocating far-Left causes. The Tides Foundation and its closely allied Tides Center, which was spun off from the Foundation in 1996 but run by Drummond Pike, distributed nearly $66 million in grants in 2002 alone. In all, Tides has distributed more than $300 million for the Left. These funds went to rabid antiwar demonstrators, anti-trade demonstrators, domestic Islamist organizations, pro-terrorists legal groups, environmentalists, abortion partisans, extremist homosexual activists and open borders advocates.

And now we find out that they fund McCain's chief political advisor, too. How coincidental.

UPDATE III: The Chartwell Charitable Foundation also has donated over $50,000, but a Google on this shows them much more interested in promoting the arts. Why the interest in McCain's reform politics? And here's the Educational Foundation of America making a mid-five-figure or more donation, too. The site describes their interests:

Areas of interest include, but are not limited to, the environment, the crisis of human overpopulation and reproductive freedom, Native Americans, arts, education, medicine, and human services.

That makes two of its major financial backers who support abortion, an unusual position for a group that employs the chief political advisor of a pro-life Senator.

UPDATE IV: Speaking of EFA, here's what they have to say about their efforts to promote Peace and Security in 2003:

In this issue area of increasing national and global importance, EFA is firmly committed to reducing irresponsible military spending, avoiding unnecessary violent conflict, and preventing the use of deadly (nuclear/chemical/biological) weapons. By joining and respecting the terms of international conventions, maintaining pathways of meaningful dialogue, and recognizing the role for a balanced military presence, the United States can work towards a peaceful, safe, and fair world community.

And on reproductive rights, where NARAL makes a prominent appearance ($220,000 over 2 years):

It is EFAs goal in the area of Population to fund programs that ensure reproductive health services are available to all, regardless of race, religion, or economic status. EFAs funding in 2003 assisted programs that work to: promote abortion training and build a new corps of abortion providers; address legal challenges to abortion access; provide reproductive health services to uninsured/underinsured women; train new pro-choice activists, particularly through campus organizing; organize physicians that favor reproductive choice; mobilize pro-choice voters; and provide essential reproductive education and services to teens.

And yet, they've funded the pet non-profit of a supposedly pro-life Republican and helped pay the salary of his chief political advisor. Hmmmm. I note that The Reform Institute doesn't appear in its 2001-3 annual reports, which leaves 2004 for their donation.

UPDATE V: Another major donor to Rick Davis' salary is the Proteus Fund. Proteus also supports gay-marriage initiatives around the US to the tune of $935,000. They gave $75,000 to stopping the Yucca Mountain nuclear fuel storage initiative, a legislative priority of the Bush administration.

UPDATE VI: OSI and its Constitution and Legal Policy Program also gives big bucks to Rick Davis and the RI. Guess who funds OSI? George Soros.

UPDATE VII and BUMP, 3/8: Some of McCain's allies in finance reform have reservations about McCain's explanation about how the money doesn't connect to him, in an update to the original AP story:

"I think there is an appearance issue any time you have a company or an interest giving large donations to any organization associated with a member (of Congress)," said Larry Noble, the former chief lawyer for federal election enforcement who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics.

Kent Cooper, head of the Political Money Line that tracks political donations, agreed.

"Senator McCain derives a clear benefit by using The Reform Institute to help the debate on campaign finance reform. His McCain-Feingold bill helped break the connection between members of Congress and large contributions. Here is an example of a large contribution going to the foundation connected with a member of Congress. I don't see a difference," Cooper said.

There is no difference, just a more sophisticated way of reaching out to elected officials via their staff. RI's employment of McCain's chief political advisor with a six-figure salary and that advisor's actions in soliciting donations from Cablevision just before his other employer takes political action on their behalf has all the same earmarks of a payoff, just as if that money had dropped into McCain's political campaign directly. As the article notes, RI supported McCain's last presidential bid, and before this floated to the top, they certainly would have worked closely with him on his next one, too.

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