The Washington Independent
The Washington Independent

Did The McCains Receive Special Treatment From Telecom Firms?

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | October 15, 2008 | Habiba Ashton
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Have you ever lived somewhere with really lousy cell phone service?

If so, you’ve probably wondered if there was anything you could do about it. As it turns out, there is — as long as you happen to be married to a powerful senator who sits on the the Senate Commerce Committee.

In June of this year, Verizon Wireless delivered, free of charge, a portable cell phone tower to the 15-acre estate near Sedona, Ariz., owned by Sen. John McCain and his wife, Cindy, according to The Washington Post. In July, AT&T provided another portable tower. One year earlier, Cindy McCain had put in a request on Verizon’s Website to improve cell phone service at her residence.

Over the course of the past year, Cindy McCain had offered land for a permanent cell tower and Verizon embarked on an expensive process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits even though few people other than the McCains would benefit from the tower…

On Sept. 18, 2007, a Mesa, Ariz., contractor working for Verizon surveyed the McCain property. Another contractor drafted blueprints (see document) calling for moving a utility shed and installing a 40-foot tower with two antennas and a microwave dish, surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence.

Construction costs would be $22,000, records show. Industry specialists said the figure probably only covers the tower and fence because the antennas, the dish and power source would run the cost into the six figures.

Why would Verizon and AT&T undertake such expenses on behalf of a very small number of customers? There is at least one possible explanation.

Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain’s dealings with the wireless companies stand out because Sen. John McCain is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunications services.

McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including campaign manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon. Former McCain staffer Robert Fisher is an in-house lobbyist for Verizon and is volunteering for the campaign. Fisher, Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg and company lobbyists have raised more than $1.3 million for McCain’s presidential campaign and Verizon employees are among the top 20 corporate donors over McCain’s political career, giving more than $155,000 to his campaigns.

McCain’s Senate chief of staff Mark Buse, senior strategist Charles R. Black Jr., and several other campaign staffers have registered as AT&T lobbyists in the past. AT&T Executive Vice President Timothy McKone and AT&T lobbyists have raised more than $2.3 million for McCain. AT&T employees have donated more than $325,000 to McCain campaigns, putting the company in the No. 3 spot for career donations to McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

“It raises the aura of special consideration for somebody because he is a member of the Senate,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats and an ethics attorney who represents politicians of both parties. “Here is a guy who is campaigning as Mr. Maverick and Mr. Reformer and he keeps skirting the edge.”

Some may note that, because McCain is the Republican presidential nominee, his security detail provided by the U.S. Secret Service may require solid coverage to perform its duties. According to the post, the service could have made do with the existing coverage, because it relies on multiple layers of communications, including radio. However, the plans for the permanent tower on the property were well underway by the time the Secret Service contacted Verizon and asked to speed up the process after Memorial Day. The portable towers then arrived promptly.

The Post reports that plans for the permanent tower were killed soon after the newspaper put in a records request, Verizon killed the project, saying “it doesn’t make business sense.”

Not surprisingly, the McCain campaign denies McCain’s position or connections to the telecommunications industry’s lobbyists played any role in the extraordinary attention the Arizona senator received.

And maybe they didn’t. But next time you find yourself living somewhere with sub-par cell phone service, just for fun, why not give Verizon or AT&T a call and request your own personal cell-phone tower and see how quickly they spring into action.

Habiba Ashton | BCS Growth Fund (Israel) L.P., a private investment fund specializing in investments in technologically focused businesses with high growth potential, employs Habiba as an analyst. Mrs. Ashton served as an analyst and information manager at the Israel International Fund, the first Israeli venture capital fund designed specifically for Japanese corporate investors, prior to joining BCS. Habiba graduated with honors from Israel's College of Management with a B.A. in Business Administration.

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