A Hole in McCain's Defense?

A sworn deposition that Sen. John McCain gave in a lawsuit more than five years ago appears to contradict one part of a sweeping denial that his campaign issued this week to rebut a New York Times story about his ties to a Washington lobbyist.

On Wednesday night the Times published a story suggesting that McCain might have done legislative favors for the clients of the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, who worked for the firm of Alcalde & Fay. One example it cited were two letters McCain wrote in late 1999 demanding that the Federal Communications Commission act on a long-stalled bid by one of Iseman's clients, Florida-based Paxson Communications, to purchase a Pittsburgh television station.

Just hours after the Times's story was posted, the McCain campaign issued a point-by-point response that depicted the letters as routine correspondence handled by his staff—and insisted that McCain had never even spoken with anybody from Paxson or Alcalde & Fay about the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC," the campaign said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

But that flat claim seems to be contradicted by an impeccable source: McCain himself. "I was contacted by Mr. [Lowell] Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the Sept. 25, 2002, deposition obtained by NEWSWEEK. "He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."

While McCain said "I don't recall" if he ever directly spoke to the firm's lobbyist about the issue—an apparent reference to Iseman, though she is not named—"I'm sure I spoke to [Paxson]." McCain agreed that his letters on behalf of Paxson, a campaign contributor, could "possibly be an appearance of corruption"—even though McCain denied doing anything improper.

McCain's subsequent letters to the FCC—coming around the same time that Paxson's firm was flying the senator to campaign events aboard its corporate jet and contributing $20,000 to his campaign—first surfaced as an issue during his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid. William Kennard, the FCC chair at the time, described the sharply worded letters from McCain, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, as "highly unusual."

The issue erupted again this week when the New York Times reported that McCain's top campaign strategist at the time, John Weaver, was so concerned about what Iseman (who was representing Paxson) was saying about her access to McCain that he personally confronted her at a Washington restaurant and told her to stay away from the senator.

The McCain campaign has denounced the Times story as a "smear campaign" and harshly criticized the paper for publishing a report saying that anonymous aides worried there might have been an improper relationship between Iseman and McCain. McCain, who called the charges "not true," also told reporters Thursday in a news conference that he was unaware of any confrontation Weaver might have had with Iseman.

The deposition that McCain gave came in the course of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of his landmark campaign finance reform law, known as McCain-Feingold. The suit sheds no new light on the nature of the senator's dealings with Iseman, but it does include a lengthy discussion of his dealings with the company that hired her, including some statements by the senator that could raise additional questions for his campaign.

In the deposition, noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams (who was representing the lawsuit's lead plaintiff, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell) grilled McCain about the four trips he took aboard Paxson's corporate jet to campaign events and the $20,000 in campaign contributions he had received from the company's executives during the period the firm was pressing him to intervene with federal regulators.

Asked at one point if Paxson's lobbyist (Abrams never mentions Iseman's name) had accompanied him on any of the trips he took aboard the Paxson corporate jet, McCain responded, "I do not recall." (McCain's campaign confirmed this week that Iseman did fly on one trip returning to Washington from a campaign fund-raiser in Florida.)

At another point Abrams asked McCain if, "looking back on the events with Mr. Paxson, the contributions, the jets, everything you and I have just talked about, do you believe that it would have been justified for a member of the public to say there is at least an appearance of corruption here?"