McCain Takes More Heat Over FCC Stances

Bud Paxson Tells Washington Post He Talked with McCain About Letter to Federal Communications Commission
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Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) campaign continues to take heat over his handling of communications issues while chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The story involved his relationship to Acalde & Fay lobbyist Vicki Iseman and actions he took regarding her clients, particularly Paxson Communications.

McCain said last week that she was a friend but nothing more and that it never affected his running of the committee. The campaign initially said the senator did not meet with Iseman or her client, Bud Paxson, formerly head of Paxson Communications, before sending letters to the Federal Communications Commission urging action on a complex 1999 station deal that would have allowed Paxson to own a station in top-10 market Pittsburgh.

But in an interview published in the Washington Post Saturday, Paxson said he talked with McCain several weeks before McCain wrote the letters to then Democratic FCC chairman William Kennard and other commissioners and that Paxson suggested sending a letter. That contradicted an e-mail from the campaign to the Post claiming that "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde personally asked McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding."

The flap over McCain's intervention is an old one -- he was grilled about it on Nightline in January 2000 during a previous presidential bid -- but the involvement of Iseman has given it new legs as the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee marches toward the convention.

Shortly before Christmas in 1999, citizen groups attacked McCain after he pushed the FCC to reach a conclusion on the Pittsburgh swap. McCain sent letters not only to Kennard, but to the four other commissioners, as well, B&C reported at the time, telling them either to vote on the deal, which had been pending for more than two years, or to explain why they hadn't done so, giving them a deadline for answering.

In the complicated deal, the operator of two Pittsburgh noncommercial TV stations -- WQED and WQEX -- would turn one of them (WQEX) over to Cornerstone TeleVision, which would have, in turn, sold its commercial station, WPCB-TV, to Paxson Communications. The deal was estimated to be worth about $35 million.

On Nov. 17, 1999, McCain sent a letter to the FCC urging it to make a decision, then sent another letter Dec. 10 to Kennard to follow up.

Staffers at the time said there was nothing inappropriate about the senator's inquiry because the letters were not suggesting how the FCC should vote, only that it should vote. Such "get on with it" letters are not unusual communications between the Hill and the FCC.

But Democratic commissioner Gloria Tristani and Kennard saw it differently. "In my two years on the commission, I have never received such an out-of-line request," she told B&C in 2000 of the Paxson letters. She was particularly unhappy about the deadline, saying, "We are an independent agency and were ... acting in a quasi-judicial role. It was inappropriate to ask for a vote by a certain date."

"I don't know what staffers said it wasn't "inappropriate," said one veteran media activis, "but the general counsel ruled that McCain violated the ex parte rules, albeit inadvertently.  That hardly makes it 'appropriate.' "

The deal was approved by a 3-2 vote, with Democrat Susan Ness the swing vote, joining Republicans Michael Powell and Harold Furchtgott-Roth, with Kennard and Tristani opposing. McCain opposed Ness' renomination, but she said at the time that her policial fate did not swing her vote to the Republican's cause.

Kennard told McCain that his request could influence commissioners' decisions and damage due process rights, B&C reported.

Still, a letter from McCain to Kennard telling the FCC to get moving was certainly in keeping with McCain's general unhappiness with Kennard's running of the agency.

In an FCC oversight hearing in June 1998, he complained at the dearth of decitions out of the Mass Media Bureau and what he saw as a general lack of production. "To paraphrase Winston Churchill," he said, "as things stand now, never have so many worked so hard to produce so little for so few." He called for a complete overhaul of the agency, saying, "The commission needs to have its priorities adjusted, its excess tonnage trimmed and its functions realigned."

Citizen groups hammered McCain for taking $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and taking trips on his corporate jet, which the McCain campaign last week pointed out were not against ethics rules at the time. But given McCain's stance as a reformer, they were looking to question the ehtical high ground on which he was trying to stand -- a question being raised again last week.

In a Jan. 5, 2000, interview with Nightline, McCain said he never told the FCC which way to vote and said Paxson's campaign contributions had no bearing on his actions, although he conceded that they could have an appearance of impropriety. "My job as chairmman of the Commerce Committee is to see that the FCC does their job," he told Koppel. "They weren't doing their job."

The New York Times added a new wrinkle Sunday, pointing to McCain's opposition to Kennard's earlier attempts do away with local marketing agreements, pointing out that a company fighting to preserve LMAs, Glencairn, was also a client of Iseman's.

Sinclair Broadcast Group had more than one-dozen LMAs with Glencairn that had drawn criticism from some other broadcasters, although the FCC had approved Glencairn station purchases with full knowledge of the relationship, Sinclair pointed out at the time.

McCain did indeed oppose getting rid of LMAs, which allow for a certain amount of control over a station without violating prohibitions on ownership. But McCain also opposed more general ownership-rule tightening -- another bone he had to pick with Kennard. In December 1998, McCain warned that tightening ownership rules would be in "direct defiance" of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, suggesting instead that Kennard loosen the rules, starting with the 35% ownership cap.

McCain's office had not returned an e-mail request for comment at press time. His office phone mailbox was full and was not accepting calls.

This story includes reporting from former B&C reporter Bill McConnell.