Friday, April 25, 2008

The Trouble With Not Being Earnest

NYT Editorial

Senator John McCain sells himself for the presidency as a champion of campaign finance reform, a sworn enemy of Congressional handouts and a maverick who is immune to the corrupting influence of big money. In two campaigns, he has vowed not to dispense favors to contributors.

Humans being humans, and senators being senators, it defied belief that Mr. McCain would not at some point have done a little something for a special friend back home. As it turns out, he has. David Kirkpatrick and Jim Rutenberg reported in The Times on Tuesday that Mr. McCain has used his influence and official position several times to benefit the real estate empire of Donald R. Diamond, a wealthy, 80-year-old real estate developer.

For his part, Mr. Diamond has successfully shaken the money tree for various McCain campaigns and already has raised $250,000 for this year’s presidential effort.

There is nothing illegal about this, but it is more evidence that Mr. McCain is as mortal — or compromising — as the next politician. Mr. McCain has accepted corporate contributions for pet projects and relied heavily on lobbyists to help run his campaigns and Senate office. And when land swaps like the ones he arranged for Mr. Diamond involve a subsidy from taxpayers, which they often do, they are no different from the pork-barrel projects that Mr. McCain decries daily on the stump. Pork is central to Mr. McCain’s economic program. He says he would help pay for hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts by getting rid of it.

A McCain spokeswoman, Jill Hazelbaker, told The Times that Mr. McCain “has done nothing for Mr. Diamond that he would not do for any other Arizona citizen.” That is supremely disingenuous, or Arizona’s citizens are supremely blessed. In the mid-1990s, Mr. McCain’s staff helped Mr. Diamond snap up some prime California coast that he turned for a $20 million profit. The senator also sponsored two bills in 1991 and 1994 (and is now sponsoring a third) authorizing Mr. Diamond to swap land that he owned for thousands of acres of public land that he developed at considerable profit.

Such exchanges are not unusual in Western states, where so much land belongs to the federal government. Typically, a developer (or sometimes a municipality needing room to grow) will exchange environmentally sensitive private land for public land on which business or homes can be built.

These can be win-win deals, serving a public interest by expanding parks or wilderness areas while allowing legitimate profits. In many cases, though, the developers win and the taxpayers lose, partly because of inflated appraisals. Mr. Diamond appears to have come out way ahead in the 1991 and 1994 deals by swapping several thousands of acres that were added to a national park in exchange for cash and strategically located land in Scottsdale and Phoenix.

Many members of Congress who represent the West have supported such exchanges, and, compared with Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader from Nevada, Mr. McCain is something of a piker in this area. Mr. Reid is not the least bit embarrassed by bills that he sponsored that have given developers in growth-hungry Las Vegas access to vast acreage that was once off-limits to building.

But it is Mr. McCain who is running for president as Mr. Straight Talk. He ought to live up to the standard that he sets for himself. A good place to start would be to admit to the deals that he has made and propose reforms to a process that badly needs an overhaul.

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