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Backer disputes McCain remarks

Broadcaster says they met before letter sent to FCC

Email|Print| Text size + By James V. Grimaldi and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post / February 23, 2008

WASHINGTON - Broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson yesterday contradicted statements from Senator John McCain's presidential campaign that the senator did not meet with Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Paxson's behalf.

Paxson said he talked with McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona Republican wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station.

Paxson also recalled that his lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, may have attended the meeting in McCain's office and that Iseman helped arrange the meeting. "Was Vicki there? Probably," Paxson said in an interview yesterday. "The woman was a professional. She was good. She could get us meetings."

The recollection of the now-retired Paxson conflicted with the account provided by the McCain campaign about the two letters at the center of a controversy about the senator's ties to Iseman, a partner at the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay.

The McCain campaign said Thursday that the senator had not met with Paxson or Iseman on the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding," the campaign said in a statement.

But Paxson said yesterday, "I remember going there to meet with him." He recalled that he told McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."

McCain lawyer Robert Bennett played down the contradiction between the campaign's written answer and Paxson's recollection.

"We understood that he [McCain] did not speak directly with him [Paxson]. Now it appears he did speak to him. What is the difference?" Bennett said. "McCain has never denied that Paxson asked for assistance from his office. It doesn't seem relevant whether the request got to him through Paxson or the staff." The Paxson acquisition, coming as McCain made his first run for the presidency, has posed a persistent problem for the senator. The deal raised embarrassing questions about his dealings with lobbyists at a time when he had assumed the role of an ethics champion.

The two letters he wrote to the FCC in 1999 while he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee produced a rash of criticism and letter from the then-FCC chairman, who called McCain's intervention "highly unusual." McCain had repeatedly used Paxson's corporate jet for his campaign and accepted campaign contributions from the broadcaster and his law firm.

In a deposition in 2002, McCain acknowledged talking to Paxson about the Pittsburgh sale. Asked what Paxson said in the conversation, McCain said that Paxson "had applied to purchase this station and that he wanted to purchase it. And that there had been a numerous year delay with the FCC reaching a decision. And he wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business."

"I said I would be glad to write a letter asking them to act," McCain testified, recounting the conversation with Paxson. "But I cannot write a letter asking them to approve or deny, because then that would be an interference in their activities."

Iseman's connections to McCain have come into question this week after a longtime associate of McCain's said that he had asked Iseman to distance herself from McCain and his 2000 presidential campaign to protect the candidate's reputation for independence from special interests.

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