Prisoner of War Chest

McCain should put his campaign money where his mouth is — or, at least, online

John McCain is using his Web site to raise millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Now let's see him use that Web site to let us in on who his contributors are, with full disclosure in a fashion befitting his campaign-reform message.

Put your money -- or, rather, a record of it -- where your propaganda is, Senator McCain, right there at www.mccain2000.com.

There are already ways we can find out who McCain's campaign donors are. If we're patient. The next deadline for filing campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission is April 15. The presidential race will almost certainly be down to two by then, and "New Hampshire bump" or no, Arizona's senior senator may not be one of the general election contenders. So that FEC report may be moot by the time we see it. (And the FEC's disclosure requirements are tepid to boot, but more on that later.)

This chart reflects contributions to McCain's '98 Senate and current presidential campaigns from PACs and individual employees of industries with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs. The black bars reflect contributions through September 1999; gray reflects the latest contributions reported, October through December 1999.
Joe Forkan
This chart reflects contributions to McCain's '98 Senate and current presidential campaigns from PACs and individual employees of industries with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs. The black bars reflect contributions through September 1999; gray reflects the latest contributions reported, October through December 1999.
This chart reflects contributions to McCain's '98 Senate and current presidential campaigns from PACs and individual employees of industries with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs. The black bars reflect contributions through September 1999; gray reflects the latest contributions reported, October through December 1999. Click for a larger view.
This chart reflects contributions to McCain's '98 Senate and current presidential campaigns from PACs and individual employees of industries with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs. The black bars reflect contributions through September 1999; gray reflects the latest contributions reported, October through December 1999.

Click for a larger view.

McCain's calls for campaign-finance reform sound good, but while they've gotten him votes in New Hampshire, they've gotten us (The People) nowhere. Here's a chance for him to take a step -- albeit a baby step -- toward changing the system, by encouraging better, quicker, fuller disclosure. That way, while we wait for the numskulls in Washington to enact meaningful campaign-finance reform, the voters can decide for themselves whether a candidate is negatively influenced by campaign contributions.

Be a (dare I say?) maverick, Senator McCain.

I know this can be done, George W. Bush does it. McCain actually did it himself for a brief time during his 1998 presidential -- er, I mean Senate campaign. The method wasn't user-friendly, but it was a good idea. Now that the stakes -- and the hits -- are high, there's no disclosure.

Until McCain starts posting his contributors on the Web -- I'd suggest a weekly tally, including employer, occupation and cumulative total -- we'll have to educate ourselves by reviewing his latest filings, which cover the period of October-December 1999.

In November, New Timesreviewed McCain's Senate and presidential contributions through September 1999 in "An Endowed Chair" (November 25). The conclusion: Special interests with business before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chairs, have given generously to McCain.

For example, US West and its subsidiaries gave McCain about $103,000 during the three-year period examined. Compare that with the $112,000 Charles Keating and his associates gave McCain between 1982 and 1988 -- the money that got McCain labeled a member of the Keating Five. (McCain eventually gave Keating's money back.)

Last week, I reviewed McCain's latest filing, to see if the patterns we had found in the fall were holding up. McCain received about $6.3 million in contributions between October and December. Not all of the contributions can be analyzed. About $1.8 million came in donations of $200 or less, which don't need to be reported to the FEC. Of the remaining money, $52,250 is from political action committees (PACs); $4.5 million came in individual donations of more than $200.

But as was the case with our previous report, a large percentage of McCain's $200-plus contributions are impossible to analyze. The $4.5 million includes the following laughably vague groupings (or lack thereof):

• Homemaker: $249,713

• Self-employed: $499,310

• Information requested: $661,216

• Retired: $1,118,141

That adds up to a little more than $2.5 million. Add that to the $1.8 million in contributions under $200, and you're left with about $2 million in contributions that can be studied in any meaningful way.

How can it be that of $6.3 million, only $2 million (32 percent of the total) can be analyzed to see who is giving what to John McCain? It's not the senator's fault. His rate for identifying donors tends to be as good as, or better, than his opponents'. As far as the FEC is concerned, "Retired" is an okay label, even if the individual still has substantial interest in a business. "Homemaker" is sufficient, even if the homemaker is married to the CEO of a major company. "Self-employed" is adequate, even if that means the contributor owns his or her own business. And it's even acceptable to put "Information Requested," the FEC says, so long as the candidate makes his or her best effort to locate that information. Insiders tell me enforcement is nonexistent.

In McCain's case, the remaining data do yield some interesting observations. The categories of "aviation," "financial" and "telecommunications" grew substantially, while the others got just a small boost. (See chart.) US West increased its employees' contributions to McCain by $5,200. CSX, Inc., another big contributor with ties to the railroad industry, added $2,600.

The satellite company EchoStar continued to favor McCain, who has championed its cause. Letters McCain released last month reveal he's intervened with regulators on EchoStar's behalf at least twice. In November, the senator announced his opposition to a satellite-TV bill that he said contained too many gimmes for cable providers and broadcasters. Forty EchoStar employees donated a total of $11,750 to McCain's campaign in November and December (on top of the $10,900 company employees had given to McCain's Senate and presidential campaign through last September).

The EchoStar contributions likely would not be considered "bundling" by the FEC, which requires proof that the checks were literally bundled up and delivered to the campaign by one individual. But the fact that so many checks were written so close together -- for example, 10 checks were written by EchoStar employees on November 19 -- looks fishy.

EchoStar is not alone. Twenty-eight employees of Nomura Securities, a Japan-based financial company, donated a total of $24,000 to McCain in December, with $10,000 of that money coming in on December 15. On December 28, seven employees of the New York law firm Kreindler and Kreindler wrote McCain seven $1,000 checks.

The Grand Canyon overflights issue proves that even small sums can raise eyebrows. In "An Endowed Chair," we reported that the United States Air Tour Association had boasted on its Web site that its influence with McCain soared after USATA members donated to the senator's campaign. The figure was small, $6,250, but the effect was big: McCain offered a floor amendment to an aviation bill that put the squeeze on the Federal Aviation Administration -- with the possible effect of eliminating noise pollution regulations the USATA hates and environmentalists love. The amendment was yanked after enviros complained. This latest campaign-finance analysis reveals that USATA members gave McCain an additional $1,500 two days after he offered the amendment, and before he pulled it.

You can see McCain's contributions yourself online at www.tray.com, the home of FECInfo, or at the FEC's official site, www.FEC.gov. Everything through December, that is. For the rest, you'll have to wait until April -- or 'til the senator decides to do some good with his own Web site.

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