Files and McCain Letter Show Effort to Keep Loophole
The New York Times
By STEPHEN LABATON
February 23, 2008
In late 1998, Senator John McCain sent an unusually blunt letter to the head of the Federal Communications Commission, warning that he would try to overhaul the agency if it closed a broadcast ownership loophole.
The letter, and two later ones signed by Mr. McCain, then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, urged the commission to abandon plans to close a loophole vitally important to Glencairn Ltd., a client of Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist. The provision enabled one of the nation’s largest broadcasting companies, Sinclair, to use a marketing agreement with Glencairn, a far smaller broadcaster, to get around a restriction barring single ownership of two television stations in the same city.
At a news conference on Thursday, Mr. McCain denounced an article in The New York Times that described concerns by top advisers a decade ago about his ties to Ms. Iseman, a partner at the firm Alcalde & Fay. He said he never had any discussions with his advisers about Ms. Iseman and never did any favors for any lobbyist.
One of the McCain campaign’s statements about his dealings with Ms. Iseman was challenged by news accounts on Friday. In discussing letters he wrote regulators about a deal involving another of Ms. Iseman’s clients, Lowell W. Paxson, the campaign had said the senator had never spoken to her or anyone from the company. But Mr. McCain acknowledged in a 2002 deposition that he had sent the letters after meeting with Mr. Paxson.
On Glencairn, the campaign said Mr. McCain’s efforts to retain the loophole were not done at Ms. Iseman’s request. It said Mr. McCain was merely directing the commission to “not act in a manner contradictory to Congressional intent.” Mr. McCain wrote in the letters that a 1996 law, the telecommunications act, required the loophole; a legal opinion by the staff of the commission took the opposite view.
A review of the record, including agency records now at the National Archives and interviews with participants, shows that Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, played a significant role in killing the plan to eliminate the loophole. His actions followed requests by Ms. Iseman and lobbyists at other broadcasting companies, according to lobbying records and Congressional aides.
Over the years, Mr. McCain has taken varying positions on broadcast ownership issues. He has supported the relaxation of the ownership rules, but he has also been sharply critical of rules that permit too much concentration of ownership in a single market.
By November 1998, the F.C.C. was planning to strike down broadcasting marketing agreements, a potentially ruinous development for Glencairn. But after receiving Mr. McCain’s Dec. 1 letter, it put off consideration of the issue.
“To the extent the F.C.C. shows itself incapable of following Congressional intent,” the letter said, “these issues will become part of our overall review of the commission’s functions and structure during the next session of Congress.”
The letter, sent from Mr. McCain’s office by his staff at the commerce committee, was also signed by Senator Conrad Burns, Republican of Montana and chairman of a communications subcommittee. It was uncharacteristic of Mr. McCain, according to a review of dozens of letters sent by him to the commission during the same period.
It was the only letter that contained a suggestion that a failure to act would result in the possible overhaul of the agency.
The letter said that “as a leading participant in the passage of the 1996 Act, I have a very clear understanding” of the law’s intent and why it required the ownership loophole to be preserved. Mr. McCain was one of five senators — and the only Republican — to vote against the act. He has also been an outspoken critic of it.
While other companies also complained to Congress about the plan to close the loophole, the issue was particularly important to Sinclair because it had more marketing agreements than any in the nation. For its part, Glencairn appeared to have been getting little support in Congress until it retained Ms. Iseman in 1998.
Edwin Edwards, who was the president of the company at the time, said in a recent interview that after retaining Ms. Iseman, he was able to get heard by Mr. McCain.
“We were pounding the pavement in Washington,” Mr. Edwards said. “We recruited help from as many people as we could. We knocked on every door just trying to get support.”
The campaign said that Mr. McCain never spoke with Ms. Iseman about the issue, but that she did speak to his staff about it. Mr. Edwards and Mr. McCain met on July 20, 1999, according to the campaign.
After the commission postponed consideration of the issue, Mr. McCain signed a second letter to the agency on Dec. 7, 1998, in support of local marketing agreements, and a third one on Feb. 11, 1999. The third letter was signed by four other lawmakers. Ultimately, the F.C.C. loosened the rules to permit a company to own two television stations in some markets.
The letters Mr. McCain wrote to the commission in the Paxson matter were sent in late 1999 and prompted the agency’s chairman to chastise him for interfering in a licensing matter. The incident embarrassed Mr. McCain, then making his first presidential run, because Mr. Paxson was a campaign contributor and fund-raiser.
While the campaign said Thursday that Mr. McCain never spoke to anyone from Paxson or Ms. Iseman’s lobbying firm before sending those letters to the commission, an article posted Friday on Newsweek’s Web site said Mr. McCain had previously acknowledged first speaking to Mr. Paxson. Recounting that conversation, Mr. McCain testified in the deposition, “I said I would be glad to write a letter asking them to act.”
The Washington Post reported Friday on its Web site that Mr. Paxson acknowledged in an interview that he had met with Mr. McCain to discuss the letters before they were sent and that Ms. Iseman was probably at the meeting.
In three interviews with The Times since December, Mr. Paxson has provided varying accounts about the letters. In the first, he said Ms. Iseman was involved in the drafting of them and had lobbied Mr. McCain. He later said he could not recall who had been involved.