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[Washington Babylon]

How McCain Promotes “Reform” Through Non-Profit Institute

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As noted here last week, Senator John McCain’s ties to the supposedly independent Reform Institute have recently attracted well-deserved media scrutiny. In 2001, McCain helped found the Institute, a non-profit group whose stated mission is to advance political transparency. But the group’s real goal has often seemed to be the advancement of John McCain.

I have an article in the May issue of the magazine that takes a close look at the links between the Institute and McCain. For example, the Reform Institute over three years paid $395,000 in salary and consulting fees to Rick Davis, the telecommunications lobbyist and McCain’s campaign chairman in both 2000 and 2008. For several years the Institute operated out of the offices of Davis, Manafort–where Rick Davis is a name partner–and paid the lobby shop as much as $10,000 per month for rent.

Indeed, quite a few of the senator’s staffers and key allies have held positions at the Reform Institute. These include Rebecca Donatelli, a long-time consultant to McCain (and the wife of one of his close advisors), who is a former Institute board member; Crystal Benton, a spokeswoman for McCain ’08 who previously handled media relations for the Institute; and Ken Nahigian, former counsel to McCain at the Senate Commerce Committee who currently directs the Reform Institute’s Center for Energy and Environmental Progress. Nahigian’s firm helps plot media strategy for McCain’s presidential campaign.

Similarly, a number of big donors to McCain’s political campaigns have generously underwritten the Reform Institute’s operations as well. For example, the Institute’s website identifies William Bloomfield, a California real estate magnate, as a major funder. According to figures compiled by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Bloomfield and family members have donated nearly $60,000 to McCain’s presidential campaign and his Straight Talk America Political Action Committee.

Other Reform Institute funders include Ecosphere, the satellite TV company owned by Charles Ergen, a friend of McCain’s whose company has been periodically boosted by the senator’s congressional actions; and the Manafort Family Foundation, which is controlled by the family of Paul Manafort, Rick Davis’s business partner. Paul Manafort himself is a contributor to both McCain ’08 and Straight Talk America. (Manafort, incidentally, has long been considered one of the most ethically challenged lobbyists in Washington. He has worked in the past for dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, and his more recent clients have included a number of highly dubious Eastern European political and business interests.)

The Reform Institute has frequently championed the same issues as Senator McCain, and in doing so has promoted his political profile and agenda as well. During its early years of operations the Institute focused on campaign finance reform, and prominently featured McCain at its press conferences and in its news releases. Between 2003 and 2004, the Institute paid McCain’s travel expenses (of over $2,000) to appear at three of its events, including a New York City luncheon to commemorate the Supreme Court’s upholding of the McCain-Feingold Act. According to a well-placed source with whom I spoke, Rick Davis made key decisions about how and where the Institute would promote campaign finance reform. He frequently chose to get involved in politically strategic swing states like West Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.

In its 2005 non-profit tax filing, the Reform Institute broadened its agenda to include issues such as “climate stewardship.” Coincidentally, no doubt, McCain and Senator Joe Lieberman have been co-sponsors of a bill called the Climate Stewardship Act. (Environmental Defense, another contributor to the Reform Institute, was a major backer of the legislation. Earlier this year, McCain returned the favor by providing a letter for one of the group’s direct mail pitches.)

(These are just some of the details left out of the magazine story, which explains the overlapping interests of the Reform Institute and John McCain Inc.)

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