Critics on Tuesday questioned whether Sen. John McCain catered to special interests when he aggressively threw his support behind a $35 billion Pentagon contract for a European plane maker.
McCain, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, played a crucial role in blocking the deal to build air tankers from going to U.S.-based Boeing, instead paving the path for EADS to score the loot. He framed his decision as an example of political integrity; Boeing has previously been exposed of contract abuse. But a review of campaign finance donations and lobbying records suggests that money and personal lobbying may have also been in play.
On January 15, 2007, McCain appeared at Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's gubernatorial swearing in ceremony and formally called for multiple bidders in the tanker deal. The push for an open process had only one true beneficiary, however, and that was the Northrop Grumman/EADS consortium, which was poised to be Boeing's sole competitor.
A day after McCain made his proclamation, the contributions began to flow. John Green, a lobbyist for EADS donated $2,100 to the senator's presidential campaign. Ten days after that, Michelle Lammers, the "Chief of Staff" for EADS North America, gave $250 to the McCain campaign. It was her first political contribution ever. Less than a month later, the long-time head of EADS' government affairs program, Samuel Adcock, made a $2,100 donation to McCain. And eleven days later, Ralph Crosby, the head of EADS North America, donated $2,300 himself.
All told, as documented earlier by CQ PoliticalMoneyline, McCain received more than $15,000 from EADS and its subsidiary, Airbus North America. Not only was this the highest amount received by any federal candidate, but prior to 2006, not a single employee from EADS had ever contributed to McCain. Two Airbus employees did donate nearly $4,000 for his 2000 run at the White House.
"It has a bad appearance," said Phillip Finnegan, the director of corporate analysis at The Teal Group, a market analysis and consulting firm. "Clearly, companies contribute to members of congress who are sympathetic with there position. But it doesn't necessarily mean that it influences their position... McCain is a bit of a crusader. And when he has an issue like he had with Boeing, he pursues it. But [the contributions] definitely doesn't look good."
Finnegan was referring to McCain's 2003 investigation into Boeing's billing practices and lock on the tanker business. That investigation resulted in the company losing out on a $23 billion deal to lease tankers to the Air Force. On Friday, McCain defended both his current and past positions: "I never weighed in for or against anybody that competed for the contract. All I asked for was a fair process. And the facts are that I never showed any bias in any way against anybody -- except for the taxpayer."
But there are myriad signs that EADS curried up to the Arizona Senator. And it wasn't just the money. According to an Associated Press report published on Tuesday, the McCain campaign currently employs individuals who just last year were lobbying on behalf of EADS.
"Two of the advisers gave up their lobbying work when they joined McCain's campaign," the AP wrote. "A third, former Texas Rep. Tom Loeffler, lobbied for the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. while serving as McCain's national finance chairman."
One of those advisers, John Green, left Ogilvy Government Relations to become McCain's congressional Republican liaison shortly after the EADS deal was announced.
"They never lobbied him related to the issues, and the letters went out before they were contracted" by EADS, McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker told the AP.
In the end, McCain may have received more than just campaign contributions in return for his support of the EADS contract. Parts for the refueling tankers are slated to be built in Mobile, Alabama. And just days after the deal was finalized, the state's governor, Bob Riley -- a long holdout in the presidential process -- finally offered his endorsement of McCain's candidacy.
"To say this is a great day for Alabama is a monumental understatement," Riley said of the contract. "This will go down in history as one of our greatest days."