Sen. John McCain has come under scrutiny for two letters he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission in 1999, at the request of lobbyists working on a deal involving broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson. A disputed New York Times story recently sparked controversy about McCain's connection to one Paxson lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. Read the report on Iseman's lobbying for Paxson from that time period — annotated to show what these reports show, what they don't show, and how a new ethics law will improve disclosure of lobbying.
Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Senate's champion of campaign finance reform, has been dogged by questions about an old fight over TV licenses in Pittsburgh. In 1999, he wrote letters prodding the Federal Communications Commission to vote on the case. He said he wasn't taking sides.
This case was dissected when McCain first ran for president, in 2000 and again this month. It is the same case that caused controversy last week when the New York Times wrote about it.
McCain has always said that his letters to the FCC had just one purpose: to push the commissioners to get on the ball and do something.
He said it in 2000, and he said it this week.
The deal in 2000 involved three broadcasters. Pittsburgh public television, WQED, would sell one of its two stations to Cornerstone, a Christian broadcaster, and Cornerstone would transfer its Pittsburgh station to Paxson Communications, which was shopping for a Pittsburgh outlet.
McCain chaired the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC.
Lowell "Bud" Paxson of Paxson Communications had made his fortune by founding the Home Shopping Network. In 1998 and 1999, Paxson, his family, his company's executives and his law firm gave McCain at least $30,000. He also helped McCain raise money.
There were three ways the FCC could have resolved the Pittsburgh case: by approving the license transfers, rejecting them or killing them by not acting.
That's because the three broadcasters had set a deadline.
Washington lobbyist Lanny Davis was working for WQED. "Cornerstone would walk away from the deal unless it was approved by a certain date," he said.
That "upset date," as it's known in the trade, was Dec. 31, 1999. When the broadcast lobbyists reached out to McCain, community activists in Pittsburgh such as Jerrold Starr were trying to run out the clock.
Starr was an organizer of the Save Pittsburgh Public Television campaign and the author of a book about the case, called Air Wars. He says he wanted the community to hold a public hearing on the deal, but Paxson wanted it resolved quickly.
Now Starr disputes a statement put out by McCain's campaign this month that his group wanted McCain to get involved.
"We did not ask him to intervene and move the FCC to make a decision. That's a false claim," he said.
In the fall of 1999, the lobbyists and lawyers for Paxson and WQED held a strategy session. Lanny Davis was there and remembers making a proposal.
"It was my idea to ask members of Congress, including but not limited to Sen. McCain, to write a letter to the FCC and to weigh in on this transaction," he said.
But, the communications lawyers said that under the commission's rules, lawmakers could only call for action.
Paxson pitched McCain on a letter, too. In 2002, McCain recounted the conversation in a deposition on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.
He said in his deposition that he told Paxson, "I will not write a letter, I cannot write a letter, asking them to approve or deny." But he would be glad to ask them to act, which he did.
McCain sent off a strongly worded letter on Nov. 17, and his next letter, on Dec. 11, was even tougher. The commissioners got it just before their year-end meeting.
McCain said the five commissioners should each explain in writing if they had acted, and if not, why not. The letter included language, typical for McCain, that he was not trying to influence the decision.
But the commission chairman suggested that the senator could have influenced the process and told McCain the letter was "highly unusual."
A spokeswoman for McCain's campaign said they "strongly disagree with" any suggestion that McCain forced the vote.
The commission went 3-2 for the broadcasters, but the business deal later collapsed.
Jerrold Starr's community group filed a legal complaint, that by intervening at all, McCain had broken the rules. Eight months later, FCC lawyers said he had broken the rules — but only inadvertently.