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McCain Confronts Allegations of Close Ties to Lobbyist

February 21, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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On Thursday, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., challenged allegations that he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist that were raised in a New York Times article, calling it a "hit and run smear campaign."
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JIM LEHRER: Judy Woodruff has the John McCain story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At a hurriedly arranged news conference in Toledo, Ohio, this morning, Sen. John McCain directly rebutted New York Times’ allegations that during McCain’s 2000 presidential bid his campaign staff confronted him about an improper relationship with a female lobbyist 30 years his junior.

Her name is Vicki Iseman, and she also has denied that they were more than friends. This morning, McCain was asked to characterize the relationship.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Friends, seen her on occasions, particularly at receptions and fundraisers and appearances before the committee. I have many friends in Washington who represent various interests and those who don’t, and I consider her a friend.

JUDY WOODRUFF: McCain also knocked down the Times’ allegation that in 1999 he improperly intervened with federal regulators on a lobbying matter important to Iseman. At the time, Iseman was lobbying McCain on behalf of businessman Lowell “Bud” Paxson, who was attempting to buy a TV station in Pittsburgh.

McCain, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees telecommunications matters, sent two letters to the Federal Communications Commission urging a decision on the deal.

The Times’ report also said that McCain staffers were concerned that the senator was spending an inordinate amount of time with Iseman, which included a trip to Washington from Miami on a Paxson-owned jet.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: First of all, on riding on the airplane, that was an accepted practice. I have ridden on many airplanes. And since then, the rules have been changed with something I supported.

On the, quote, “letters to the FCC,” interestingly, this was brought up in the year 2000 by the New York Times. I wrote a letter because the FCC, which usually makes a decision within 400 days, had gone almost 800 days.

In the letter, I said, “I am not telling you how to make a decision. I’m just telling you that you should move forward and make a decision on this issue.” And I believe that was appropriate.

McCain chides anonymous sourcing

JUDY WOODRUFF: The appearance of an overly close relationship with a lobbyist representing interests before McCain's committee would have presented a serious problem for his 2000 campaign, run on a message that targeted corporate money and special interests.

According to unnamed former McCain associates quoted by the Times, the senator acknowledged, quote, "behaving inappropriately" and promised to keep his distance from Iseman.

But in Ohio this morning, he denied that happened.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: And I do notice with some interest that it's, quote, "former aides," that this whole story is based on anonymous sources.

JOURNALIST: None of them, nobody on your campaign said, "Senator, she's a problem. Don't deal with her"?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No. No. No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A former top adviser to McCain, John Weaver, confirmed to the paper that he met with Iseman at Washington's Union Station to tell her to stay away from McCain. Iseman, too, confirmed the meeting, but she disputed Weaver's account that he admonished her to back off.

As part of his own defense this morning, McCain also defended the practice of lobbying.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: People who represent interests are fine; that's their constitutional right. The question is, is whether do they have excess or unwarranted influence? And certainly no one ever has in my conduct of my public life and the conduct of my legislative agenda.

Keating Five scandal

JUDY WOODRUFF: But McCain did not mention what he himself has described as a wrenching and formative experience earlier in his political career.

In 1989, he was the subject of a Senate investigation into the workings of a former Phoenix-area savings and loan chief Charles Keating, a big money contributor to McCain's Senate campaigns.

McCain and four of his Democratic Senate colleagues urged federal regulators to ease oversight of Keating's operation. When Keating's savings and loan went bust, the federal government spent nearly $3.5 billion to bail out investors.

McCain was reprimanded in 1991 by the Senate for exercising "poor judgment," while the careers of three other senators eventually ended.

McCain, for his part, said he had talked with the paper's editor, Bill Keller, though he declined to be interviewed by Times' reporters.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: ... Mr. Keller, I called him up when the investigation was going on. And I asked him, basically, what was happening and that we hoped that we could bring this to closure.

But it was a very brief conversation. I apologize for that. I was not trying to dissuade him from in any way from doing the story. I know the New York Times, so I wasn't trying to dissuade it from him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Times, which had been working on this story for months, issued a statement late this morning that read, in part, quote, "We publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats," end quote.