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If John McCain was too close for comfort with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, what did she have to show for it?

The New York Times story made a run at cataloging the possible favors. And with the exception of the letters I noted in my earlier posts, it's pretty thin gruel.

The Times sums most of it up in a single paragraph (here's the McCain camp's point-by-point rebuttal):

A champion of deregulation, Mr. McCain wrote letters in 1998 and 1999 to the Federal Communications Commission urging it to uphold marketing agreements allowing a television company to control two stations in the same city, a crucial issue for Glencairn Ltd., one of Ms. Iseman’s clients. He introduced a bill to create tax incentives for minority ownership of stations; Ms. Iseman represented several businesses seeking such a program. And he twice tried to advance legislation that would permit a company to control television stations in overlapping markets, an important issue for Paxson.

The question naturally arises whether anything is remarkable about this "champion of deregulation" responding to the desires of telecoms and media companies. Was it special attention or typical indulgence? When the Times took a look at McCain's actions as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee back in 2000, it reached the conclusion that McCain had frequently taken actions benefiting campaign contributors.

Iseman's client Paxson was a case in point. The company and its lobbyists had contributed $20,000 to McCain and flown him around on their corporate jet. And that was the obvious angle to the stories about McCain's letters to the FCC in late 1999: that Mr. Straight Talk Express and campaign finance reform was at the beck and call of special interests.

But Paxson was far from unique. The Times also reported that McCain had weighed in on behalf of Baby Bell telephone companies seeking to enter the long-distance business; two of those companies -- neither of them clients of Iseman -- had contributed a total of $167,000 to McCain.

So while The Washington Post reports that Iseman would frequently tout her access to McCain to other lobbyists, it's not clear at this point what remarkable favors that supposed access won her.

After all the fear-mongering, charges of fear-mongering, counter-fear-mongering, and so on, the surveillance bill discussions went behind closed doors when Congress left for the week.

The chairmen and ranking members of the judiciary and intelligence committees are supposed to be the ones forging that compromise. But a statement just out from the Democratic chairmen of those committees in the House and Senate (including the pro-immunity Senate intelligence committee chair Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)) indicates that things aren't going so well:

"In what should have been a bipartisan, bicameral meeting, staff members of the House and Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees met today to work in good faith to reach a compromise on FISA reform. As we have said, we are using this week to work on a compromise that strengthens our national security and protects Americans' privacy. Unfortunately, we understand our Republican counterparts instructed their staffs not to attend this working meeting, therefore not allowing progress to be made in a bipartisan, bicameral way. While we are disappointed that today's meeting could not reflect a bipartisan effort, we will continue to work and hope Republicans will join us to put our nation's security first."

We'll let you know if we get a response on this from the Republicans.

Update: A Democratic aide clarifies that this was to be the first meeting of the staff.

Update: House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's (D-MD) statement is more to the point:

“...The decision to not participate, coupled with their vote against an extension of their bill - the Protect America Act - only serves to reinforce the perception that Republicans prefer to have a political issue rather than a strong new FISA bill in place as quickly as possible. Certainly Republicans do not really believe that the role of the House is to simply rubberstamp whatever bills the Senate passes.

Update: See the Republicans response here.

TPMm Reader AC writes in with a little more context to McCain's December, 1999 letter to the FCC.

As I mentioned in my post, the McCain campaign has responded at length to the New York Times story, and the statement strives to beat back any impression that McCain had given any undue consideration to clients from Vicki Iseman's firm, Alcalde and Fay -- in this case, Paxson Communications, which was seeking the FCC's approval of a deal.

The statement goes out of its way to claim that no one from Alcalde and Fay had ever "personally asked" McCain to send the letter. The statement also says that while McCain's staff had met with "representatives" from that firm, the staff had also met with activists who opposed the deal. Both camps wanted the issue resolved, and "both parties asked the staff to contact the FCC regarding the proceeding," according to the statement.

There are a couple things wrong with that. For one, the lawyer who represented opponents of the deal told The Boston Globe back in 2000 that McCain's letter was " improper, unethical, violated FCC rules barring such contacts on pending FCC matters, and appeared designed to assist a major contributor." It certainly doesn't sound like she or her clients were consulted.

And when The Washington Post posted a story the next day, the paper had a clear take as to who had wanted the letter sent:

As for the Paxson letter, McCain's aides confirmed that he had written the missive at the request of Alcalde & Fay, the Washington lobbying firm retained by Paxson.

Whatever you may think of this morning's New York Times and Washington Post stories, they turn on whether John McCain did legislative favors for Vicki Iseman, the lobbyist with whom McCain denies having had a romantic relationship.

And McCain was keen to hit back hard on that account at his news conference this morning. When one reporter asked him about one of the key details in the Times piece -- that McCain, then the chairman of the Senate commerce committee, had written a letter to the Federal Communications Commission on behalf of one of Iseman's clients -- he responded:

On the "letters" to the FCC. Interestingly, this was brought up in the year 2000 by The New York Times. I wrote a letter because the FCC, which usually makes a decision within 400 days, had gone almost 800 days. In the letter, I said I’m not telling you how to make a decision, I’m just telling you that you should move forward and make a decision on this issue. And I believe that was appropriate. And the former chairman of the FCC at the time in 2000 said that was more than an appropriate role for me to play as chairman of the oversight committee.

While it's true that the letter did not request a particular decision (more about that below), it's not true that the FCC chairman saw no issue with the letter.

As The Boston Globe reported way back in 2000, William Kennard, the FCC chair at the time, had immediately objected to McCain's December 10, 1999 letter, replying four days later that it was "highly unusual" and that he was "concerned" at what effect McCain's letter might have on the decision process.

An earlier letter from McCain on the issue in November had not brought a similar rebuke. And McCain frequently wrote letters to the FCC requesting that it act on particular issues. But the December letter was remarkable for its insistence and call for each of the five commissioners to explain why they hadn't come to a decision.

McCain's comments today also skirted the issue of whether Iseman had sent information to his office for help in drafting the letter, as the Times reports, and elides discussion of the letter's effect. Iseman represented Paxson Communications, which was pushing for the FCC decision because it would have cleared the way for Paxson to buy a Pittsburgh television station. The lengthy statement out from McCain's campaign states that no one from Iseman's lobbying firm or Paxson "personally asked" McCain to send the letter to the FCC.

But as the Times reported way back in 2000, it was no secret on the commission what outcome McCain was seeking. And on a 3-2 vote only days after his December letter, the commission approved the deal. Opponents of the sale cried foul, pointing in particular to the $20,000 Paxson and its lobbyists had contributed to McCain.

Update: You can see the exchange of letters between McCain and Kennard here.

Later Update: The McCain camp now says McCain wasn't referring to Kennard, who actually received the letter, but to a different former FCC chairman.

The trial for representative William Jefferson (D-LA), scheduled to begin next week, will likely be delayed by Jefferson's recent challenge to the judge's refusal to dismiss numerous bribery-related charges. Jefferson alleges that the Grand Jury that indicted him last year was presented with tainted evidence. (Times Picayune)

The unfolding financial scandal at the National Republican Congressional Committee continues to shake up the NRCC's officers. Treasurer Christopher Parana (who had replaced Christopher Ward in 2007) now is being replaced by Keith Davis. The NRCC's spokesperson explained that "we thought it was prudent during this transition period to bring in an extremely experiences [sic] and highly respected longtime expert." (Politico)

After Trent Lott (R-MS) announced his resignation from the Senate last fall, he denied that his decision had anything to do with the indictment - which came two days after the announcement - of his brother-in-law Richard "Dickie" Scruggs for allegedly attempting to illegally influence a Mississippi judge. Now federal investigators are looking into whether Lott played a role (sub. req.) in both that case and a separate one in which Scruggs allegedly tried to influence a different state judge "by promising that Mr. Lott would recommend Judge Delaughter for a seat on the federal bench." (Wall Street Journal)

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This John McCain does not need.

While he's busy this morning responding to this morning's New York Times story, the AP reports that the head of the Federal Elections Commission is questioning whether McCain will be allowed to drop out of the public financing system.

The reason, of course, stems from McCain's too-clever-by-half $4 million bank loan in December. We outlined the deal on Monday.

To review briefly: in December, McCain, who'd earlier opted in to the public financing system, needed cash. The FEC had already certified that he was owed $5.8 million in public matching funds -- but he wouldn't be getting that money until March. And he didn't want to absolutely commit yet to using that system, because it would limit his campaign to spending only $54 million through the end of August. And FEC rules say that using public matching funds as collateral locks a candidate into the system.

So McCain struck a deal with the bank: he promised to only commit to using the system if he lost the primary. If he won, he would opt out of the program, and he'd be more than able to pay the bank back, because the funds would come flowing. McCain's lawyers were evidently very pleased with the canniness of this arrangement.

If you're confused by this, don't worry: so, apparently, is FEC Chairman David Mason. McCain officially notified the FEC earlier this month that he was no longer in the public financing system for the primary. Now Mason has responded with a letter saying essentially, not so fast. It looks like you used the public matching funds as collateral.

Update: You can read the letter here.

If the FEC ultimately decided that McCain could not opt out of the system, the consequences would be severe for him. He'd be limited to spending $54 million through August -- meaning that the Democratic nominee would be able to outspend him several times over.

But there's a major catch, of course. The FEC can't take any official action, because it's still shut down over the deadlock in the Senate. The FEC needs four commissioners to act; it currently only has two.

So all the FEC can do for now is send inquiries. But if by some miracle the impasse in the Senate were broken, it could mean trouble for McCain.

It's official: staging a car crash is not the best election strategy. Not only did Gary Dodds lose the Democratic primary for New Hampshire's 1st District Congressional seat, but he's been convicted for the stunt. From the AP:

A jury convicted Gary Dodds of falsifying evidence, causing a false public alarm and leaving the scene of the April 2006 crash. He showed no emotion as the verdicts were returned on the first day of deliberations after a 15-day trial.

Dodds, 43, claims he injured his head in a crash on the Spaulding Turnpike and nearly drowned in a river before being rescued 27 hours later from the snowy woods. Prosecutors say he spent part of that time soaking his feet in cold water to make it appear he spent the night outdoors, all to boost his faltering campaign.

"He had a story that he was going to stick to," County Attorney Thomas Velardi said during closing arguments Friday. "It would've been a heroic story. It would've been a great story — all the people who hadn't heard of him before ... really would've known who he was."

I'm still not clear on how getting into a one-car accident and then going missing for a day, and then being discovered wet and shivering makes for a "heroic story." But in any case, staging it is a crime.

No real surprise here. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) voted against a bill in the Senate that would have confined the CIA to interrogations outlined in the Army Field Manual -- that means no ambiguity about the use of waterboarding or other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. We explained his position at length here.

The President has threatened to veto the bill, and because sometime swing votes like McCain, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) oppose it, a veto override vote in the Senate seems certain to fail. Today, McCain told reporters that Bush should veto the bill and said he's banking on the consistency of his position on the issue of torture overriding the subtlety of his stance. From the AP:

"I think I can show my record is clear. I said there should be additional techniques allowed to other agencies of government as long as they were not" torture.

"I was on the record as saying that they could use additional techniques as long as they were not cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment," McCain said. "So the vote was in keeping with my clear record of saying that they could have additional techniques, but those techniques could not violate" international rules against torture.

Of course, that's the administration's position, too: we don't "torture."

Interestingly, McCain also took the opportunity to outline a real difference between himself and the president: he says that if he were elected president, he wouldn't use signing statements -- those statements Bush has tacked on to a number of important bills (including McCain's anti-torture amendment) that essentially say, "NOT." As McCain put it: "If I disagree with a law that's passed, I'll veto it."

As we noted Monday, a Swiss bank convinced a California judge to issue an order blocking access to The New York Times makes clear this morning that it was a ham-handed and probably unconstitutional move.

Ham-handed because even though the injunction was sweeping in its scope (disabling access to the domain name), it will certainly not accomplish its goal, which was to restrict dissemination of the documents. Not only have dozens of mirror sites cropped up to host the documents, but the publicity from the move has also increased scrutiny on the bank, Julius Baer, and heightened WikiLeaks' supporters' resolve. Update: And the site is still available via its IP address. The documents allegedly show the bank's efforts to set up shell entities to hide money. And as for the unconstitutional part:

Judge [Jeffrey] White’s order disabling the entire site “is clearly not constitutional,” said David Ardia, the director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School. “There is no justification under the First Amendment for shutting down an entire Web site.”

The narrower order [also issued by the judge], forbidding the dissemination of the disputed documents, is a more classic prior restraint on publication. Such orders are disfavored under the First Amendment and almost never survive appellate scrutiny.

When I asked Julian Assange, a member of WikiLeaks' advisory board and its investigations editor, whether WikiLeaks plans to contest the injunction in court, he replied by email, "Bloody oath we will."

He said that WikiLeaks, which relies on pro bono representation, was currently in talks with a number of lawyers and organizations for possible representation. As Wired reported, the site was caught by surprise late last week, receiving "notice only a few hours before the case went to a judge who accepted the agreement between Dynadot [WikiLeaks' domain registrar] and the bank."

My inquiries to Julius Baer's attorneys about possible future actions were forwarded to a spokesman for the bank in Switzerland, who replied "We have always sought to act in the best interests of our clients and shall continue to do so."

At this point, it's not even controversial to say that the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay are a sham. The current chief judge there has written that the military tribunals have “credibility problems." And the former chief prosecutor, after resigning, publicly criticized the system as "deeply politicized."

Now that former prosecutor, Col. Morris Davis, has given more evidence of that politicization in an interview with The Nation after the six Gitmo detainees were charged. Davis says that in an August, 2005 meeting with William Haynes, then the Pentagon's general counsel, Haynes seemed to completely discount the possibility of the military tribunals acquitting any of the detainees. Now, of course, Haynes has been installed as the official overseeing the whole process, both the prosecutors and the defense. From The Nation:

"[Haynes] said these trials will be the Nuremberg of our time," recalled Davis, referring to the Nazi tribunals in 1945, considered the model of procedural rights in the prosecution of war crimes. In response, Davis said he noted that at Nuremberg there had been some acquittals, something that had lent great credibility to the proceedings.

"I said to him that if we come up short and there are some acquittals in our cases, it will at least validate the process," Davis continued. "At which point, [Haynes's] eyes got wide and he said, 'Wait a minute, we can't have acquittals. If we've been holding these guys for so long, how can we explain letting them get off? We can't have acquittals, we've got to have convictions.'"

Davis submitted his resignation on October 4, 2007, just hours after he was informed that Haynes had been put above him in the commissions' chain of command. "Everyone has opinions," Davis says. "But when he was put above me, his opinions became orders."

Back in December, the Defense Department blocked Davis from testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It's becoming increasingly clear why.