- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

Arguably, the most interesting vote the Senate took Tuesday wasn't to create the Department of Homeland Security it passed easily with 90 votes. Rather, it was the vote on an amendment to strip several "special-interest" provisions from the bill.

Leading the charge against these special interests, predictably, was Sen. John McCain. "Special interests have no place in any congressional action, least of all one of this magnitude," he swelled on the Senate floor. Indeed, the Arizona senator was the lone Republican to support the Democratic amendment. Thankfully, three Democratic senators opposed it, and the measure failed 52-47. Had it passed, the legislation and the department's creation likely would have been scuttled for the year.

Mr. McCain has gone to great lengths to cultivate his image as Mr. Clean, and the press yesterday was full of glowing remarks for his principled stand. But we hear a different story.

It involves a company called Argenbright Security, which in the wake of September 11 became the poster child for all that was wrong with private airport-screening companies. Employees fell asleep on the job; knives and guns passed by undetected. Worse still, the company's senior staff willfully concealed from the federal government the criminal backgrounds of many of its employees. Argenbright's practices were so egregious that the Transportation Security Administration would later forbid it from future security contracts.

At the time, Mr. McCain like many lawmakers made clear he was no fan of the company, and took swipes at Argenbright on NBC and in The Washington Post.

Not surprisingly, when Congress passed protections to shield various September 11-related sectors from the trial lawyers, Argenbright was not included. But this had its flaws. Not only was Argenbright left out in the cold, but so too were all the other security companies, too, whose only crime was to enforce the federal security regulations (imperfect as they may have been). So, in the Homeland Security bill, lawmakers attempted to right some wrongs and crafted a provision that protected these firms (other than Argenbright) from the trial lawyers.

But guess who suddenly became a champion of Argenbright? Mr. McCain, according to Democratic and Republican sources in the House and Senate.

Indeed, in a conversation with House Majority Leader Dick Armey a little over a week ago, Mr. McCain insisted that Argenbright be included in any liability provision. And if his special interest was not given protection, the senator threatened, he would vote against the entire Homeland Security bill. Mr. Armey called that bluff and 24 hours later, Mr. McCain caved.

But then Mr. McCain flip-flopped again. On Monday night, the Republican announced that he would vote for a Democratic package that would strip several provisions including the company liability caps without Argenbright from the bill.

So, why was Mr. McCain trying so hard to protect Argenbright from unlimited liability for their negligence? A possible clue to his insistent pleading might be found in the fact that one of the lead lobbyists for Argenbright, the Cormac Group's John Timmons, was a longtime aide to the senator. Mr. Timmons served as the top man in Mr. McCain's Senate office and as staff director for the Commerce Committee, which Mr. McCain chaired. Against that suspicion, however, must be weighed the lobbyist's comments to this page. On this issue which was so important to him at that very moment, the able Mr. Timmons told us he was not aware of his former boss' shifting positions.


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