- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005


A senator promotes a government policy sought by a corporation while a tax-exempt group closely tied to him solicits and receives $200,000 from the same company.

Campaign finance watchdogs say that creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. To their surprise, the senator is Arizona Republican John McCain, whom they usually praise for advocating campaign finance restrictions.

Mr. McCain’s help to Cablevision Systems Corp. included letting its chief executive officer testify before his Senate committee, writing a letter of support to the Federal Communications Commission and asking other cable companies to support a so-called “a la carte pricing” plan.

Mr. McCain had expressed interest in exploring the a la carte option for years before Cablevision advocated it, but he did not take a formal position with regulators until after the company’s first donation.

Most of the cable industry opposes the flexible pricing plan, which would allow customers to pick the channels they want rather than buy fixed-price packages. Mr. McCain and Cablevision say it would lower prices for consumers, but congressional studies conclude that it could make cable more expensive.

The nation’s eighth-largest cable provider, Cablevision serves 3 million customers in the New York area.

Mr. McCain’s assistance in 2003 and 2004 was sandwiched around two donations of $100,000 each from Cablevision to the Reform Institute, a tax-exempt group that touts Mr. McCain’s views and has showcased him at events since his unsuccessful 2000 presidential campaign.

The group also pays Mr. McCain’s chief political adviser, Rick Davis, $110,000 a year. Cablevision’s donations accounted for 15 percent of the institute’s fund raising in 2003, tax records show.

Mr. McCain said he saw nothing wrong with the group’s raising money from a company whose issue he championed because the donations didn’t go to his re-election campaign.

“If it was a [political action committee] or if it was somehow connected to any campaign of mine, I would say to you, that’s a legitimate appearance of conflict of interest. But it’s not,” Mr. McCain told the Associated Press. “There’s not a conflict of interest when you’re involved in an organization that is nonpartisan, nonprofit, nonpolitical.”

Specialists on political ethics said they didn’t see any distinction.

“I think there is an appearance issue any time you have a company or an interest giving large donations to any organization associated with a member” of Congress, said Larry Noble, the former chief lawyer for federal election enforcement who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics.

Kent Cooper, head of Political Money Line, which tracks political donations, agreed.

“Senator McCain derives a clear benefit by using the Reform Institute to help the debate on campaign finance reform. His McCain-Feingold bill helped break the connection between members of Congress and large contributions. Here is an example of a large contribution going to the foundation connected with a member of Congress. I don’t see a difference,” Mr. Cooper said.

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