- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

From combined dispatches

Sen. John McCain yesterday said that while lobbyists serve as close advisers to his presidential campaign, they are honorable and he is not influenced by corruption in the system.

The likely Republican presidential nominee, who has styled himself as an enemy of special interests, defended having lobbyists working for his campaign.

“These people have honorable records, and they’re honorable people, and I’m proud to have them as part of my team,” Mr. McCain told reporters.

The issue of lobbying has arisen in published reports, first in the New York Times and then in The Washington Post, suggesting that Mr. McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist and advanced the interests of her clients. Mr. McCain emphatically denied the reports on Thursday.

One issue stated in both stories was whether Mr. McCain acted improperly in sending two letters in 1999 to the Federal Communications Commission urging action on the sale of a Pittsburgh television station to Paxson Communications. The female lobbyist was working on behalf of Paxson.

In a long memo sent to reporters Wednesday night the McCain campaign denied the senator ever talked to key figures in the deal about writing letters: “No representative of Paxson or [the lobbying firm] Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding.”

But that contradicts a testimony Mr. McCain gave in 2002 — during a challenge to his campaign finance law, he said owner Bud Paxson himself contacted Mr. McCain to ask him to take action.

“I said I would be glad to write a letter asking them to act. But I will not write a letter, I cannot write a letter asking them to approve or deny, because then that would be an interference in their activities,” according to his statement, which his own campaign finance legal team posted on the Web site.

Mr. McCain said if he had asked for a specific ruling from the FCC, “then I would have been open to at least allegations that I acted in behalf of a contributor.”

He went on to say “Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint” about delays at the FCC, and said his job as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee at the time “is to see that bureaucracies do function.”

Siding with Mr. McCain, the White House accused the Times of repeatedly trying to “drop a bombshell” on Republican presidential nominees to undermine their candidacies.

White House deputy press secretary Scott Stanzel noted at a morning briefing that the story has received a lot of attention.

“I think a lot of people here in this building, with experience in a couple campaigns, have grown accustomed to the fact that during the course of the campaign, seemingly on maybe a monthly basis leading up to the convention and maybe a weekly basis after that, the New York Times does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee,” Mr. Stanzel said.

New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an online forum yesterday that he was surprised at the critical reaction to a story the paper published a day earlier which highlighted Mr. McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist.

“Personally, I was surprised by the volume of the reaction (including more than 2,400 reader comments posted on our Web site),” Mr. Keller said. ”I was surprised by how lopsided the opinion was against our decision, with readers who described themselves as independents and Democrats joining Republicans in defending Mr. McCain from what they saw as a cheap shot,” he said.

The story generated a storm of controversy online and in other media, largely due to its focus on concerns among unnamed officials in Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign that the relationship may have become romantic. Both Mr. McCain and the lobbyist have unequivocally denied the accusation.

Staff writer Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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