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Former Ariz. Senator: ‘McCain Supported Earmarks’

I had the opportunity to speak this morning with former Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), who was The Grand Canyon State’s senior senator when Sen. John McCain first joined the Senate in 1986. Sen. DeConcini spent 18 years in the Senate, and bore witness to Sen. John McCain’s formative years in the institution. Both men were implicated in the “Keating Five” corruption scandal — DeConcini was criticized by the Senate Ethics Committee for acting improperly in 1991, while McCain was cleared of that accusation, but was criticized for “exercising poor judgment.” DeConcini retired from the Senate in 1994. He is currently a supporter of Sen. Barack Obama.

During the interview, I asked DeConcini if he recalled the events surrounding a 1991 appropriation for a road on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northeastern Arizona called “the Turquoise Trail.” As I have written, an article that appeared in The Arizona Republic that year indicates that McCain sought the appropriation by writing a letter to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), then the head of an a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on transportation issues. DeConcini served on the Appropriations Committee as well, where he chaired a subcommittee of his own. According to The Republic article, Lautenberg secured $4.7 million for the project apparently through actions “outside the normal legislative process.” If true, this would seem to clearly contradict McCain’s frequent assertion that he has “never sought a single earmark or pork-barrel project” for his home state in his entire career. To my surprise, DeConcini said he remembered this particular appropriation. Here’s what he had to say:

: I came across these Arizona Republic articles from 1991. I’m curious if you recall this incident. Back in ‘91, McCain was just getting started with his anti-wasteful spending and earmark theme. He joined with 11 other senators and congressman to introduce legislation to rescind $1 billion in appropriations for earmarks that had not yet been spent in the 1991 budget. In that $1 billion, there were 325 projects that were being referred to, and three of them, McCain had supported. One of them, it appears he actually wrote a letter to Sen. Lautenberg, who was the chair of an appropriations subcommittee to get what appears to be an earmark for a road, the Turquoise Trail.

DeConcini: Oh, I know it well. I was there.

TWI: Can You describe what you remember about that incident?

**** I remember it so well because McCain took that one on himself. I supported it, but he was the leader of it, which I was delighted, because I was on the appropriations committee and I did a lot of earmarks for Arizona. He got Lautenberg to put that one in, really on his own, or whoever the ranking Republican was, who I can’t remember, on the committee at the time. That’s probably who did it for him. It was in there. I knew it was a request, but I had not taken it up to Lautenberg myself, although I do remember supporting it, either by letter or staff communication. So, when he got it in, it was quite frankly a relief to me, and I applauded it, that I didn’t have to carry that burden. Earmarks, they’re a lot of work. That’s heavy lifting. That’s why I contend that McCain is the anti-earmark guy, because he doesn’t want to do that heavy lifting. That’s what you have to do. It’s tough as hell.

I also asked DeConcini what he thought about McCain’s claim about his record on earmarks. DeConcini did not mince words.

TWI: Granted, McCain has a very solid record of not going after earmarks. On the stump, daily, he says he has never once requested a single earmark or pork-barrel project for his home state. How would you characterize that statement?

DeConcini: Well, the example you just gave, of course, is the answer to that. He has supported earmarks. He has a long history, now, of being opposed to them. It’s just a fact of life that he has done it. It’s like Gov. Paliln. She has supported the “Bridge to Nowhere.” So what? She changed her mind on it, and McCain changed his mind on earmarks. I disagree with him on that, but I respect his right to change his mind on it. I think, people ask me, and you’re not asking me, why he changed his mind - because he didn’t want to do the heavy lifting. He didn’t want to have to go there and ask people to do something, because they ask you to do something in return sometimes. Besides that, I was his senior colleague, and I’m doing all this and getting a lot of press on it. It’s not something he wants to get in that same pool with. That’s how I interpret it.

A strong statement, from someone who served with McCain as part of Arizona’s Senate delegation.

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