When is a senator doing constituent work and when is he tied up in an influence-peddling scandal? The lines seem blurred when it comes to the media’s coverage of the land swap deals Republican presidential candidate John McCain has been involved in.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times tried to manufacture a McCain land deal scandal and today it’s the Washington Post’s turn.
The front-page headline of Post staff writer Matthew Mosk’s story is titled “McCain Pushed Land Swap that Benefits Backer.” It says McCain negotiated a land swap to allow Arizona rancher Fred Ruskin to exchange his checkerboard of property located in the Prescott National Forest for an equal piece of continuous federal land that was later sold for development. Mainly because the developer, Steven A. Betts, who purchased the land from Ruskin is a donor to McCain’s presidential campaign, reporter Mosk smells trouble.
But Mosk never proves a connection between the donations and the deal, and there are many details he left out, some provided in ample detail by the McCain campaign, the rancher and the businessman.
Firstly, McCain didn’t single handedly negotiate the deal even though Mosk’s headline makes it sounds as if he did. The highly-scrutinized land swap is the biggest in Arizona’s history and passed the House and Senate in July 2005 after receiving a laundry list of endorsements from Arizona-based groups and media.
It was even supported by Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano, and for good reason. A 2004 editorial by the Arizona Republic applauded the swap because it “will consolidate 70,000 acres of environmentally sensitive Forest Service lands and those owned by rancher Fred Ruskin, doubling the acreage for public access and recreation.”
“The exchange is a blessing for several youth camps that will able to gain title so they can better manage their assets in the national forest,” it praised. The Republic also recognized the deal “is good for Ruskin. He’ll be able to build what he wanted to all along: a shopping center in Camp Verde near Interstate 18 and Arizona 260. Camp Verde will get a tax base it desperately needs.”
McCain’s role in passing the bill is heightened for the sake of Mosk’s story. McCain initially withheld his support of the swap when it was originally introduced by former Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R.-Ariz.) based on environmental concerns. Hayworth’s bill died in the House in 2002.
To help his prospects of securing the swap, Ruskin hired some lobbyists—some who were former McCain staffers. In a detailed statement to the Post, McCain spokesmen Brian Rogers explained :“Senator McCain’s staffers who worked most closely on the legislation also met occasionally with Dr. Ruskin, but they do not recall ever being directly lobbied by any former staffers of Senator McCain. Staff also believes that if you asked lobbyists involved in the issue at the time, they would convey frustration about the position that Senator McCain took on this issue. Basically, Senator McCain was determined that before he would support any final legislation, it was critical that it not only provide for an equal value exchange, but that the very important water usage issues be dealt with as part of any legislative agreement—a position that Dr. Ruskin did not share. As a result, the final agreement on the legislation spanned two Congresses, and it was often reported that an agreement would not be reached.”
Rogers made this statement in writing to the Post at the Post’s request a day before the story published. The questions and answers are available here.
According to a letter that rancher Ruskin wrote to reporter Mosk, McCain would not agree to introduce a bill until after a “crucial meeting” was held that included representatives of the Prescott National Forest, McCain, Sen. Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.), Rep. Rick Renzi (R.-Ariz.) and from the cities of Flagstaff, Williams and Camp Verde. The August 4, 2004 meeting was chaired by Lori Faeth, governor Napolitano’s policy adviser for natural resources.
“Out of this meeting came the compromise between the two Senators on the exchange legislation,” Ruskin told Mosk in a letter, available here. “This became S.849 and in it, McCain included numerous protections for the Verde River, but ones that were acceptable to me and the cities involved.” When McCain spoke about this bill on the Senate floor he noted that staff from Sen. Domenici (R.-N.M) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D.-N.M.) offices were involved in drafting those provisions.
Similarly, Rogers told the Post McCain introduced the bill “at the request of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as many Northern Arizona communities…to improve the management of forest lands and conservation of natural resources. The legislation also provided communities with an opportunity to acquire land needed for economic development, community services and open space.”
Although the title of Mosk’s story is titled “McCain Pushed Land Swap that Benefits Backer” nothing shows McCain was aware Betts’s company, SunCor, would later buy the land from Ruskin. And, according to campaign finance records Ruskin has never donated money to McCain. (Ruskin has, however, donated money to the Arizona Republican party and Senator Kyl, among other candidates.)
“SunCor had not remotely entered the picture at the time Sen McCain decided to support the exchange, and it was to be another eighteen months before they actually invested in the ranch,” Ruskin’s letter to Mosk stated.
In fact, when Mosk interviewed Betts, Betts told Mosk there was “absolutely no” connections between his contributions to McCain’s campaign and purchase. On behalf of McCain, spokesman Rogers said “at no time during the consideration of this legislation was there any involvement with SunCor.”
Although Mosk’s story made no definitive link between Betts’s campaign donations and McCain’s senatorial work, liberal anti-McCain blogs were eager to link it to the Keating Five scandal McCain was implicated in many years ago.
“Now, is this is a major scandal?” asked the liberal Talking Points Memo in their wrap-up of the Post story. “No. But like The New York Times' story last month, it shows McCain delivering for a campaign contributor in a way that belies his claim that he underwent a Road to Damascus conversion after the Keating Five scandal.”
AmericaBlog wrote, “Funny thing: The legislation for the land swap did pass thanks to McCain. Even funnier thing: One of the biggest fundraisers for McCain ended up getting the contract to build the development… Funny how these things happen. Starts to become clearer and clearer how McCain did get himself wrapped up with Charles Keating after all.”