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Behind the John McCain Lobbying Scandal: A Look at How McCain Urged the Federal Communications Commission to Act on Behalf of Paxson Communications

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On Thursday, the New York Times revealed McCain repeatedly wrote letters to government regulators on behalf of Paxson Communications and other clients of the telecommunications lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. We speak to Angela Campbell, the attorney for the Alliance for Progressive Action and QED Accountability Project, the community groups that sought to block Paxson’s takeover of a Pittsburgh public television license. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Senator John McCain is denying a New York Times report alleging questionable ties with a female Washington lobbyist. The Times reported Thursday that during his 2000 run for the White House, McCain repeatedly wrote letters to government regulators on behalf of clients of the telecommunications lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. McCain served as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee at the time.

The Times also reports that aides to McCain were concerned the senator was having a romantic affair with the lobbyist. McCain and Iseman have denied having any romantic relationship. But former McCain aides said the senator acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Iseman. On Thursday, McCain denied the story at a campaign stop in Ohio.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: At no time have I ever done anything that would betray the public trust nor make a decision which in any way would not be in the public interest and would favor anyone or any organization. As chairman of the Commerce Committee, there were hundreds of issues, including many telecommunications issues, that came before the committee. I had to make decisions on those issues, and I made those decisions. Sometimes they were agreed with, sometimes they were not. But any observer will attest to the fact that I made those decisions on the basis of what I thought was in the best interest of the American citizen. So I’m proud of my record of service to this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The McCain campaign later accused the New York Times of rushing to print the story to preempt an article in the New Republic that said Times staffers had clashed over its publication. The New Republic criticized the article for relying on what it called “anecdotal evidence” and says Times executive editor Bill Keller had initially opposed it. In a statement, Keller said he and the Times stand by the story.

AMY GOODMAN: In its article, the New York Times mentions McCain’s involvement in pushing through a television deal sought by one of Iseman’s clients, Paxson Communications. In 1999, Paxson was awaiting approval from the Federal Communications Commission to purchase a television station in Pittsburgh. The deal was opposed by a local community group because it would have turned a public television license into a commercial one.

Iseman confirmed to the Times she sent McCain staffers information that would later form the basis of two letters in which McCain urged the FCC to reach a decision. The letters were deemed so unusual that the FCC chair at the time, William Kennard, accused McCain of interference. As chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, McCain would apparently be in violation of ex parte rules barring outside pressure on FCC decisions.

Our first guest was on the other side of McCain’s lobbying efforts in this case. Angela Campbell was the attorney for the Alliance for Progressive Action and QED Accountability Project, the community groups that sought to block Paxson’s takeover of the Pittsburgh public television license. She is currently director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. She joins us now from Washington, D.C.

Angela Campbell, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you start off by explaining what this case is about?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Well, in Pittsburgh, there were two public television stations, and they were operating on channels that the FCC had specifically designated for noncommercial, educational purposes, and they were both operated by the same organization, WQED. And they had run into financial difficulties, and so they were seeking to sell one of the stations. And in order to sell the station to a commercial operator, they had to get FCC approval to de-reserve the station, that is, to make it into a commercial station instead of a noncommercial station.

And my clients were very opposed to this. They felt that, you know, this was a public resource, should be serving the public, and they wanted to improve the service on the station and help the public broadcasters be more responsive to the community, rather than allow it to be sold. So they opposed the de-reservation of the station. And the FCC agreed with my clients that it would not be in the public interest to turn this into a commercial station.

Then, what happened was, the FCC — the public broadcaster had what they called a “Plan B.” It was sort of complicated, so let me explain — take a few minutes to explain it. There was another station in the market, a channel 40, that was a religious station, but it was not a reserved station. It was a commercial station, and the operator of that station was Cornerstone. So they had a deal where, if the FCC disapproved their first plan, they would swap the station with Cornerstone so that Cornerstone would end up operating on the noncommercial station, and then WQED would have a commercial station that they would then sell to Paxson. And so, my clients challenged that whole deal at the Federal Communications Commission by filing what was called a petition to deny. That’s something that any citizens in the community can file if there’s a transfer of a license that they think would not serve the public interest.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, Angela Campbell, as I understand it, this was running into — this had started around ’97, was running into late ’99, and there was a deadline for the end of the year of ’99 for a deal to be reached or the whole thing would fall through. And that’s when suddenly Senator McCain sent some letters to the FCC, basically pressuring them to make a decision. Could you talk about that?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: That’s right. Well, there had been — it was very controversial at the FCC, and I think they were really having trouble approving it, because they had actually asked — the main obstacle was that Cornerstone wasn’t, in our view, qualified to be a noncommercial licensee, because their programming wasn’t educational, it wasn’t noncommercial, and they didn’t broadly serve the community. But so, we didn’t find this out until December 15th.

The day that the commission actually approved the deal, we found out that Senator McCain had send two letters, one in November and one in December, urging the FCC — the first one urged the FCC to act on or before December 15th, which was when the FCC was going to hold their public meeting. The second letter, which was in early December, said that — the agenda for that meeting had come out, and he didn’t see that the FCC was planning to vote on it on that date, and so he wanted to know whether the commissioners were voting on it through another process, which doesn’t involve putting it on the public agenda. And he asked each commissioner to write to him by the close of business on December 14th whether they had voted the item and, if not, why they had not voted the item. And this was highly unusual for a chairman of the committee to ask that specifically to each commissioner, whether they had voted. And that’s why the chairman, Kennard, in his response raised concerns about it. And another commissioner, Commissioner Gloria Tristani, actually said she thought it was improper, and she was not going to report to the senator, you know, whether she had voted or not.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why was it improper? What is this issue of the ex parte communications? Could you explain that?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Yes. Well, just like in a — this is like a court, in that the FCC is the judge, and just as one side in a dispute can’t go and talk to the judge privately, the parties in a dispute before the commission cannot go and talk to the commissioners or the commission staff privately, nor can they send letters or other documents without sending them to the other side. And so, we had actually had a number of letters that we had solicited from congresspeople that the FCC actually rejected, because they said they hadn’t been served on the other side. And then we went back and made sure that they got copies of those letters.

We were never sent a copy of Senator McCain’s letters by him, did not find out about them until December 15th, the day of the vote, when someone from the FCC’s general counsel’s office faxed copies over to me. So the FCC rules explicitly prohibit communications that go to the merits or communications that go to urging the FCC to act by a specific date. So this was a clear violation of the FCC’s rules. And on December 20th, we actually filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission’s general counsel, alleging that he had violated the rules, and we asked for them to act on it right away. They did not. However, eventually, in August of 2000, they did rule that the senator had violated the rules.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, you’re also looking into this. I wanted to talk more about these letters that Angela Campbell is talking about, these two letters from Senator McCain to the FCC, the pressure he was putting on these FCC members and how unusual these letters were.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I think the key thing is not only that he apparently violated the regulations of the FCC, but also he’s the chair of the committee that oversees the FCC. So he’s, in essence — he controls their budget, their policies and to what degree — because, obviously, every single commissioner did respond in a letter to him by the deadline that he gave them, didn’t they, Angela?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Yes, they all responded. And you’re absolutely right, as the chairman of that committee, he has oversight responsibility. He controls the budget of the FCC, and he’s the person who really controls the legislation, you know, which determines what the FCC can and cannot do.

AMY GOODMAN: Angela Campbell, did any of these commissioners outright say this is improper to be getting this letter from you and being forced to respond to it?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Yes, Commissioner Tristani did say that in her letter.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve got the letters right there —-

ANGELA CAMPBELL: Yes, I have it here.

AMY GOODMAN: —- Angela Campbell, director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown. Yes?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: She says, “In that letter, you requested that each commissioner advise you in writing by the close of business today whether we have acted upon these applications. Respectfully, I cannot comply with your request, in order to preserve the integrity of our processes. It is my practice not to publicly disclose whether I have voted or when I will be voting on items in restricted proceedings prior to their adoption by the full commission.”

AMY GOODMAN: And explain again what Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist in question, what her role is in this, why Senator McCain, head of the Commerce Committee at the time, is doing this?

ANGELA CAMPBELL: OK. Well, at the time, we did not know of her role. When I found out about the letter, we assumed it was — that Paxson had requested the letter, because it did benefit Paxson, because they had this contract, that if it wasn’t — the deal was not approved by the end of the year, then the contract could be renegotiated. So we just assumed that Paxson was behind it because, quite frankly, in my experience in more than twenty years in Washington, D.C., congresspeople don’t normally write letters of this type or other without being asked to do so. So it wasn’t actually until later that we found out, when the Washington Post reported that he had written the letter at the request of her lobbying firm.

AMY GOODMAN: And the previous record of John McCain, Juan, the Keating Five, how sensitive John McCain is, in particular to this issue of being close to lobbyists and doing things on their behalf, if you could explain.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, yeah. I mean, Angela, you’re familiar, obviously, with some of that history, as well, although it’s not actually in your area, but he did receive enormous criticism several decades ago, actually, for his involvement in supporting what became one of the largest savings and loans failures in American history.

AMY GOODMAN: Almost took him down as a senator.

ANGELA CAMPBELL: I mean, I’m somewhat familiar with that history, but that really — I don’t have any specific knowledge about that.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s outside your purview.


AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for joining us today, Angela Campbell, director of the Institute for Public Representation at Georgetown University Law Center. We will continue to follow this story.

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