Today’s Must Read

May 9, 2008 10:09 a.m.

Once again, Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) invulnerability to the charms of lobbyists and his campaign supporters is put to the test.

This time it’s The Washington Post going front page with the tale of McCain’s role in a major Arizona land swap in 2005.

The basic thrust is this: a rancher owning 250 acres that intermingled with federally owned forest started pushing for a land swap that provide him with federal land in exchange for his own — land that he could develop. Such land swaps are fairly common, though obviously easily abused. He was able to get the support of ex-Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-AZ), but without McCain’s backing the bill died in 2002.

After that, he decided to get smart and retained a number of lobbyists with connections to McCain. That, after all, is the way Washington works:

[The rancher Fred Ruskin], who is a pediatrician by training, said he realized he needed to hire lobbyists “to open communications with McCain’s office.”

He turned to some of McCain’s closest former advisers. In 2002, he sought out Mark Buse, McCain’s former staff director at the Senate commerce committee, which the senator chaired.

“I had gone to him to see if he had any advice as to how to deal with McCain,” Ruskin said. “We had a couple of meetings and I paid him a little bit.” Buse’s federal lobbying records do not list the ranch as a client.

That year, lobbying records show, Ruskin also paid $60,000 to Michael Jimenez, another former McCain aide. Wes Gullett, who had worked in McCain’s Senate office, managed his 1992 reelection bid, and served as deputy campaign manager for his 2000 presidential run, also lobbied on the bill, documents show. The watchdog group Public Citizen lists Gullett and his wife, Deborah, as bundlers who have raised more than $100,000 for McCain’s White House bid. Ruskin also hired Gullett’s partner, Kurt R. Davis, another McCain bundler and member of the senator’s Arizona leadership team, to work with local officials and “to help with McCain if we needed help.” Buse, Jimenez and Gullett did not return calls seeking comment.

With that sort of help, McCain became much more engaged. But McCain spokesman Brian Rogers “said that McCain does not recall being lobbied by his former staff members on the land swap and that ‘no lobbyist influenced Senator McCain on this issue.'”

Nevertheless, somehow, some way Ruskin eventually ended up with his swap. And the company that’s been hired to develop his new property is run by Steven A. Betts, “a longtime McCain supporter” who’s raised $100,000 for McCain this election. (McCain’s camp says that Betts’ involvement was never discussed prior to the bill’s passage.)

Now, is this is a major scandal? No. But like The New York Timesstory last month, it shows McCain delivering for a campaign contributor in a way that belies his claim that he underwent a Road to Damascus conversion after the Keating Five scandal.

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