When considering John McCain’s history of unethical behavior, the list usually starts (and ends) with the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s, for whi
May 8, 2008

When considering John McCain’s history of unethical behavior, the list usually starts (and ends) with the Keating Five scandal in the 1980s, for which McCain was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for having shown, at a minimum, poor judgment. While McCain took on the role of a “reformer” in the scandal’s aftermath, his ethical lapses have hardly disappeared.

The NYT noted a few weeks ago, for example, that McCain went to considerable lengths in 1999 to help one of his top campaign fundraisers buy the land at an Army base that was being closed. McCain helped his benefactor get the land — and special water rights — for just $250,000, which the donor then sold two years later for $30 million. (The donor, Donald Diamond, was rather candid about buying influence with politicians: “I want my money back, for Christ’s sake. Do you know how many cocktail parties I have to go to?”) It’s the kind of obvious influence peddling McCain swears he never gets involved with.

Today, the WaPo has a front-page item highlighting yet another real-estate controversy in which McCain helped out one of his most generous supporters.

Sen. John McCain championed legislation that will let an Arizona rancher trade remote grassland and ponderosa pine forest here for acres of valuable federally owned property that is ready for development, a land swap that now stands to directly benefit one of his top presidential campaign fundraisers.

Initially reluctant to support the swap, the Arizona Republican became a key figure in pushing the deal through Congress after the rancher and his partners hired lobbyists that included McCain’s 1992 Senate campaign manager, two of his former Senate staff members (one of whom has returned as his chief of staff), and an Arizona insider who was a major McCain donor and is now bundling campaign checks.

When McCain’s legislation passed in November 2005, the ranch owner gave the job of building as many as 12,000 homes to SunCor Development, a firm in Tempe, Ariz., run by Steven A. Betts, a longtime McCain supporter who has raised more than $100,000 for the presumptive Republican nominee.

Betts now claims that he and McCain never discussed the real-estate deal, but there are some real oddities to McCain’s behavior on this one.

McCain initially withheld support for Hayworth’s bill, which failed in 2002. Ruskin saw McCain’s restraint as an obstacle. He said Senate staff members warned him that the senator was wary of a swap because “he spent some political capital and got some bricks thrown at him” over the Tonto National Forest deal.

Ruskin, who is a pediatrician by training, said he realized he needed to hire lobbyists “to open communications with McCain’s office.”

He turned to some of McCain’s closest former advisers. In 2002, he sought out Mark Buse, McCain’s former staff director at the Senate commerce committee, which the senator chaired.

“I had gone to him to see if he had any advice as to how to deal with McCain,” Ruskin said. “We had a couple of meetings and I paid him a little bit.” Buse’s federal lobbying records do not list the ranch as a client.

That year, lobbying records show, Ruskin also paid $60,000 to Michael Jimenez, another former McCain aide. Wes Gullett, who had worked in McCain’s Senate office, managed his 1992 reelection bid, and served as deputy campaign manager for his 2000 presidential run, also lobbied on the bill, documents show. The watchdog group Public Citizen lists Gullett and his wife, Deborah, as bundlers who have raised more than $100,000 for McCain’s White House bid. Ruskin also hired Gullett’s partner, Kurt R. Davis, another McCain bundler and member of the senator’s Arizona leadership team, to work with local officials and “to help with McCain if we needed help.” Buse, Jimenez and Gullett did not return calls seeking comment.

Despite his previous opposition, and despite reports that the government was getting a raw deal, McCain ultimately switched, clearly the way for a land swap that directly helped one of his biggest donors.

Worse, this may be part of a pattern.

Betts is among a string of donors who have benefited from McCain-engineered land swaps. In 1994, the senator helped a lobbyist for land developer Del Webb Corp. pursue an exchange in the Las Vegas area, according to the Center for Public Integrity. McCain sponsored two bills, in 1991 and 1994, sought by donor Donald R. Diamond that yielded the developer thousands of acres in trade for national parkland.

In the late 1990s, McCain promoted a deal in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest involving property part-owned by Great American Life Insurance, a company run by billionaire Carl H. Lindner Jr., a prolific contributor to national political parties and presidential candidates.

First, this is something to keep in mind the next time the media characterizes McCain as pure as the driven snow.

Second, if the Rezko story was considered a big deal by campaign reporters, this sketchy behavior on McCain’s part should be huge.

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