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John McCain's campaign responds to the AP regarding McCain aide Randy Scheunemann's previous work with Stephen Payne, the guy caught on video offering to set up meetings with White House officials in exchange for big donations to the George W. Bush Presidential Library fund.

The AP reports:

On Monday, the McCain campaign said that from 2002 to 2006, Scheunemann periodically engaged in consulting relationships with the two companies and that Scheunemann was never on the payroll of either firm, but that he was an occasional outside expert consultant.

Scheunemann did not lobby on any specific legislation on behalf of Worldwide Strategic Partners, said McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.

In regard to Caspian Alliance, Scheunemann arranged several informational meetings for Payne with Department of State and NSC officials following Caspian energy issues, but Scheunemann did not lobby on specific legislation or projects, said Rogers.

Scheunemann did not lobby McCain on Caspian energy issues or any other issue related to Payne, the McCain campaign spokesman added.

Before last week, we'd never heard of Worldwide Strategic Partners and Stephen Payne, the (former) Homeland Security adviser who was caught on video soliciting big donations for the future George W. Bush Presidential Library fund while offering to arrange access to top White House officials.

But Randy Scheunemann, Sen. John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, has known him -- and been working with his business associates -- for years.

Worldwide Strategic Partners was one of Scheunemann's lobbying clients back in 2002, when Scheunemann worked for the lobbying firm Orion.

And more recently, Scheunemann was lobbying for a group called the Caspian Alliance. That group was one of Scheunemann's four registered lobbying clients in 2005 and 2006, and paid him a total of $40,000.

The Caspian Alliance was formed by Payne's business associate, Houston lawyer Brian Ettinger, to "specialize in pushing the interests and advising American oil groups active in the former Soviet republics that overlook the Caspian Sea (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan)," according to a 2006 report in the Paris-based Intelligence Online, which we found in the Nexis news database.

Ettinger has worked with Payne at Worldwide Strategic Partners along with other ventures and currently shares office space with Payne at the firm's Houston office.

And the Caspian Alliance uses the same Houston address as Payne's Worldwide Strategic Partners on lobbying forms filed with the Senate.

One lobbying form for the Caspian Alliance lists several people working on its behalf, including including Ettinger, Payne's former business partner Gary Polland and Ari Storch with Artemis Strategies.

Payne is among the founders of Atremis Strategies, a lobbying firm which has had a partnership with the Caspian Alliance. Artemis Strategies was founded in 2003 by Payne, Ettinger and others including Timothy F. Powers, formerly deputy director of the Republican National Committee's congressional affairs and strategic planning operation and member of the Bush-Cheney transition team, according to a March 13, 2003 report in the Washington Post.

Payne was recently caught bragging about his close ties with Scheunemann, according to the Times of London. The British newspaper took an undercover video of Payne talking to a Kazakh politician about a potential deal. On the tape, Payne said Scheunemann has been "working with me on my payroll for five of the last eight years," according to a report in the Times.

The Times described the Caspian Alliance as a "subsidiary" of Worldwide Strategic Energy, of which Payne is also president. TPMmuckraker found that many of the same people are involved with both the Caspian Alliance and Worldwide Strategic Partners, but could not independently verify the nature of the relationship between the two firms.

A reporter for the blog Majikthise apparently obtained a 44-page document from Worldwide Strategic Energies that featured Scheunemann prominently, including the above photo. The reporter, Lindsay Beyerstein, said the document was a prospectus distributed to potential investors and listed Schuenemann among the firm's executive team, along with Major General Lincoln Jones III, a former executive at Enron.

The Times also said it obtained a similar document.

Neither the McCain campaign nor Worldwide Strategic Partners responded to requests for comment today.

Late Update: The McCain campaign responded late Monday.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey angered Democratic senators when he made an unexpected call for Congress to step in and legislate detainees rights, rather than waiting for federal court proceedings.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute this morning, Mukasey spoke to the "unanswered questions" raised by the Supreme Court decision of Boumediene v. Bush, which stated that detainees are protected by the right to habeas corpus. Mukasey called the Court's decision a "disappointment," and said the court stopped "well short of detailing how the habeas corpus proceedings must be conducted." Currently, over 200 cases are waiting to be heard in federal court related to the Supreme Court's ruling, a problem Mukasey thinks could be circumvented by Congressional action:

Congress and the executive branch are affirmatively charged by our Constitution with protecting national security, are expert in such matters, and are in the best position to weigh the difficult policy choices that are posed by these issues.

Judges play an important role in deciding whether a chosen policy is consistent with our laws and the Constitution. But it is our elected leaders who have the responsibility for making policy choices in the first instance.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement today, slamming Mukasey for failing to consult or inform the Committee of his thoughts before his speech:

"The Committee has held a wide range of hearings on issues of detainee rights and procedures. Attorney General Mukasey's call today for Congress to create new rules for these habeas proceedings is the first I have heard from the Administration on this issue," Leahy said. "The Administration made this mess by seeking to avoid judicial review at all costs, causing years of delay and profound uncertainty."

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) echoed Leahy's comments. "Our federal courts are capable of handling these cases," he said. "By repeatedly mishandling these cases, the administration has delayed justice from being served."

[Late update]: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) just chimed in with a statement from the Senate floor.

"As a result of its repeated efforts to circumvent the requirements of the Geneva Conventions and the Constitution, the Bush administration has yet to bring to justice the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of September 11," he said. "The courts are well equipped to handle this situation, and there is no danger that any detainee will be released in the meantime."

We just received confirmation that Attorney General Michael Mukasey is set to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday at 10:15 AM ET.

The hearing, titled "Oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice" is thought to be Mukasey's final appearance on the Hill. Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) will be presiding.

We'll be covering this on Wednesday, so make sure to check back for the final details on the head of DOJ's final oversight soliloquy.

The wife of the governor of North Carolina is catching heat recently for taking first-class trips to Europe at the expense of the state. She has also received a questionable 88 percent pay increase for her job at North Carolina State University. (McClatchy)

State legislators in Alaska are considering hiring a special investigator over Governor Sarah Palin's firing of Public Saftey Commissioner Walt Monegan. Palin faces accusations of pressuring Monegan to fire Palin's sister's ex-husband from a government job. (Alaska Daily News)

William Mercer, who infamously was simultaneously a senior adviser at the Justice Department and a U.S. attorney for Montana, is one of the few U.S. attorneys to make it through all eight years of the Bush DOJ. Mercer had to resign from his job at the Justice Department, and now is only the U.S. attorney for Montana. (LA Times)

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Despite his stint in federal prison, Randy "Duke" Cunningham hasn't lost hope.

The convicted former Republican lawmaker from California has submitted a petition for a presidential pardon, according to the New York Times.

The 66-year-old inmate is about 19 months into a sentence of eight years and four months.

Another thing the Times notes is that convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff has not filed a petition.

We told you yesterday about the ties between one of John McCain's top fundraisers and convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Well, there's more. Looks like Juan Carlos Benitez was helping Abramoff out with efforts to lobby for the Northern Mariana Islands.

Remember that storyline? The U.S. territory's local government hired Abramoff (and Benitez as well, we've learned) to help fend of criticism of the massive sweatshop industry on the islands.

Those sweatshops were especially lucrative -- and controversial -- because they allowed big-name companies to use a "Made in the USA" tag," even though they are filled with low-paid immigrants from across Asia.

Workers from China, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, were working below the local minimum wage, often seven days a week and up to 12 hours a day while living in shacks behind barbed wire and without plumbing, according to congressional testimony.

Let's look at the timeline -- we know that back in 2001 Benitez landed his big job (pdf) over at the Department of Justice with the help of a recommendation from Abramoff.

Specifically, the job Abramoff steered him into at DOJ was Special Counsel for Immigration-Related Unfair Employment Practices. That's the office in charge of -- guess what? -- prosecuting sweatshop owners.

"This position gave Benitez authority over enforcing provisions of ... alleged unfair employment practices, issues of importance to Abramoff clients such as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands," according to a 2006 Congressional report (pdf).

In 2002, Abramoff's firm took in $600,000 in lobbying fees from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Efforts to crackdown on the sweatshops there stalled.

Benitez left the DOJ in 2003 and went to work for Cassidy and Associates, a top Washington lobbying firm. Within months -- by 2004 -- Benitez had registered to lobby for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

Also in 2004, Abramoff went to work for Cassidy and Associates. But he soon left, as his name began popping up in news reports about corruption investigations.

So where did Benitez and Abramoff meet?

We're not sure, but it may have been in the late 1990s, when Abramoff was lobbying for a group called Future of Puerto Rico, Inc. which was pushing for a congressional vote on Puerto Rican statehood.

At the same time, Benitez was the legislative director for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in Washington.

Yesterday McCain announced that Benitez has bundled between $50,000 and $100,000 for his campaign. Maybe that's not massive money for today's campaigns, but it's interesting since McCain used to be talk so much about Abramoff and corrupt lobbyists. He doesn't do that as much anymore.

Wouldn't it be great if we could all take long, leisurely European vacations with our whole extended family -- and have the $23,000 tab paid for by Russian and Eastern European business moguls?

Unfortunately, it seems that former Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA) is among the only ones who actually gets to do that.

Ken Silverstein over at Harper's digs into the details of Weldon's January 2007 trip with ten family members (including his son's girlfriend and his daughter's boyfriend). They stopped in Moscow and Vienna (not cheap cities).

We're not sure the trip has anything to do with Weldon's new arms trafficking business. But there's a couple of interesting things to point out.

First, Weldon asked the notoriously lax House ethics committee for formal permission to take the trip before he went. He offered the lame explanation that the Russians and Serbs were paying for his trip because he was a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences and it had nothing to do with his House seat.

But when he got the sense the committee wasn't buying that argument, he "withdrew" his request for a waiver on the gift rules.

In other words: Weldon apparently didn't get the answer he wanted, so he simply ignored the committee's advice and ethics rules and went anyway, with the tab being picked up by outside sponsors.

And here's another key aspect of the trip: the Serbian family who paid for part of it was the Karic Group, run by the Karic family, which is barred from entering the U.S. due to its close ties with the warmongering Milosevic regime.

That's the same Serbian group who just a few months later hired Weldon's inexperienced 29-year-old daughter to lobby for then to the tune of $240,000 a year.

The Weldon family sure is living the American dream.

Just a day after Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) challenged the Washington Post to produce the letters he'd allegedly written on official stationary seeking cash for the academic center bearing his name, the newspaper has come through -- posting four such missives on their website.

Rangel uses his congressional letterhead and says he wants to "schedule a meeting" to talk about the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service. The letters don't explicitly state that he is seeking money.

They include:

* March 2007 letter requesting a meeting with David Rockefeller; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund donated $50,000 to CCNY

* March 2007 letter requesting meeting with Maurice R. "Hank" Greenberg, chairman of C.V. Starr Foundation; the foundation donated $5 million to CCNY

* March 2007 letter requesting a meeting with Donald Trump; Trump has not donated to the project

* June 2005 letter to about 100 foundation leaders seeking "a dialogue with you on the funding of the Rangel Center concept in the coming weeks and months." The letter helped generate contributions totaling more than $1.6 million from four foundations.

As we've reported , former Attorney General John Ashcroft was on the Hill yesterday, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee.

Ashcroft's testimony called into question the timeline of the CIA interrogations and suggested that perhaps torture began before it was authorized by the DOJ. But it also shed some light on the DOJ's thought process about the authorization of the interrogations to begin with.

It was during Ashcroft's years as attorney general that the infamous "torture" memos were written. The memos approved the use of waterboarding and other forms of interrogation as long as they did not "cause pain similar in intensity to that caused by death or organ failure."

While Ashcroft approved the memos initially, he later withdrew them out of concern that they overstepped the bounds of executive authority, a decision that he described this way:

It wasn't a hard decision for me to - when they came to me, and I came to the conclusion that these were genuine concerns - get about the business of correcting it.

Just one week ago the committee was host to the current Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

And just like Mukasey, Ashcroft was ever the artful dodger, citing a lack of memory, executive privilege or the classified nature of the information as reasons why he could not answer lawmakers' questions.

When asked asked repeatedly about waterboarding, Ashcroft described it as "very valuable," "not torture," and claimed that it "has happened three times."

"I have been aware of waterboarding," he stated in answer to questions on how he learned that the interrogation technique was being used. "I'm not sure how I am aware."

The former attorney general conceded his lack of recall as to the events in question during his opening remarks.

"It's been difficult . . . to distinguish between what I in fact recall as a matter of my own experience, and what I remember from the accounts of others," he said.

And indeed throughout the hearing, Ashcroft informed the committee that he couldn't remember. . . and that even if he could remember, he wouldn't tell them because of executive privilege.

One particularly rapid-fire stonewalling occurred during Rep. Linda Sanchez's (D-CA) five minutes of interrogation. It really can't be summed into words, so we have the clip here. Enjoy.