Is John McCain about to get caught up in an ethical storm?
Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain decided to resolve an old problem — the lack of cellular telephone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley.
By the time Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid was in full swing this summer, the ranch had wireless coverage from the two cellular companies most often used by campaign staff — Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Verizon delivered a portable tower know as a “cell site on wheels” — free of charge — to Cindy McCain’s property in June in response to an online request from Cindy McCain’s staff early last year. Such devices are usually reserved for restoring service when cell coverage is knocked out during emergencies, such as hurricanes.
In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon’s offer. “This is an unusual situation,” said AT&T spokeswoman Claudia B. Jones. “You can’t have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage.”
Over the course of the past year, Cindy McCain had offered land for a permanent cell tower and Verizon embarked on an expensive process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits even though few people other than the McCains would benefit from the tower.
Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain’s dealings with the wireless companies stand out because Sen. John McCain is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunications services.
McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including campaign manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon. Former McCain staffer Robert Fisher is an in-house lobbyist for Verizon and is volunteering for the campaign. Fisher, Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg and company lobbyists have raised more than $1.3 million for McCain’s presidential campaign and Verizon employees are among the top 20 corporate donors over McCain’s political career, giving more than $155,000 to his campaigns.
McCain’s Senate chief of staff Mark Buse, senior strategist Charles R. Black Jr., and several other campaign staffers have registered as AT&T lobbyists in the past. AT&T Executive Vice President Timothy McKone and AT&T lobbyists have raised more than $2.3 million for McCain. AT&T employees have donated more than $325,000 to McCain campaigns, putting the company in the No. 3 spot for career donations to McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“It raises the aura of special consideration for somebody because he is a member of the Senate,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats and an ethics attorney who represents politicians of both parties. “Here is a guy who is campaigning as Mr. Maverick and Mr. Reformer and he keeps skirting the edge.”
Verizon navigated a lengthy county regulatory process that hit a snag on environmental concerns. The request ultimately prevailed when Verizon invoked the Secret Service after John McCain secured the Republican nomination.
The Secret Service told The Washington Post it did not formally request the tower. After checking with Verizon and the McCain campaign, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said an e-mail sent in May by the service’s technology manager could be perceived as a request for temporary coverage under the service’s existing contract with Verizon.
“This was something that was being addressed before we were out there,” Zahren said.
The service could have made do with existing cell coverage in the area, he said, because it uses multiple layers of communication, including a secure land radio network.
Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Taylor declined to elaborate. “I am not going to talk about individual customers and their requests,” Taylor said.
Construction costs would be $22,000, records show. Industry specialists said the figure probably only covers the tower and fence because the antennas, the dish and power source would run the cost into the six figures. On Dec. 4, Cindy McCain signed a letter (see document) authorizing Verizon Wireless to act on her behalf to seek county land-use permits.
Three telecommunications specialists consulted by The Post said the proposed site covers so few users that it is unlikely to generate enough traffic to justify the investment. Robb Alarcon, an industry specialist who helps plan tower placement, said the proposed location appeared to be a “strategic build,” free-of-charge coverage to high-priority customers. A former Verizon executive vice president, who asked not to be named because he worked for the company, agreed with Alarcon, saying, “It was a VIP kind of thing.”
Verizon spokesman Taylor declined to comment when asked if this had been considered to be a “strategic build.”
But the wireless specialists said the lack of compensation suggests the purpose of the tower was not income for Verizon but a ‘strategic build” for the McCains.
Over Memorial Day, McCain hosted potential vice presidential running-mates at the ranch, but the area still lacked coverage. Richard Klenner, then the wirelss communications chief of the Secret Service, which had recently started providing protection for McCain, sent an e-mail to Verizon. “Is there any way of speeding up the process?” Klenner asked.
That day, Downing, Verizon’s contractor, wrote to the county urging approval for either the permanent tower or a cell site on wheels, “to improve Verizon Coverage in the area (including at Senator McCain’s ranch). It is imperative that the coverage is improved immediately so that Senator McCain’s security personnel, including Secret Service, can communicate while in the area.” (Zahren told The Post that Downing’s citing of the Secret Service in correspondence with the county was unauthorized.)
A day later, the county issued a permit for the permanent tower, with environmental restrictions. A week later, the county approved Verizon’s cell site on wheels.
Over the summer, AT&T’s Jones said, the company contacted the McCains for permission to install a cell site on wheels. She said that ordinarily, given the few number of residents, AT&T would not have installed a facility, but McCain’s standing as a candidate warranted it.
John McCain–a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee–received two cellular towers from two different cellular phone companies, free of charge, to provide service that only he would benefit from.