Few advisers in John McCain's inner circle inspire more loyalty from him than campaign manager Rick Davis. McCain and his wife, Cindy, credit the shrewd, and sometimes volatile, Republican insider with rescuing the campaign last year when it was out of money and on the verge of collapse. As a result, McCain has always defended him—even when faced with tough questions about the foreign lobbying clients of Davis's high-powered consulting firm. "Rick is a friend, and I trust him," McCain told NEWSWEEK last year.
Last week, though, McCain's trust in Davis was tested again amid disclosures that Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giant that was recently placed under federal conservatorship, paid his campaign manager's firm $15,000 a month between 2006 and August 2008. As the mortgage crisis has escalated, almost any association with Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae has become politically toxic. But the payments to Davis's firm, Davis Manafort, are especially problematic because he requested the consulting retainer in 2006—and then did barely any work for the fees, according to two sources familiar with the arrangement who asked not to be identified discussing Freddie Mac business. Aside from attending a few breakfasts and a political-action-committee meeting with Democratic strategist Paul Begala (another Freddie consultant), Davis did "zero" for the housing firm, one of the sources said. Freddie Mac also had no dealings with the lobbying firm beyond paying monthly invoices—but it agreed to the arrangement because of Davis's close relationship with McCain, the source said, which led top executives to conclude "you couldn't say no."
The McCain campaign told reporters the fees were irrelevant because Davis "separated from his consulting firm … in 2006," according to the campaign's Web site, and he stopped drawing a salary from it. In fact, however, when Davis joined the campaign in January 2007, he asked that his $20,000-a-month salary be paid directly to Davis Manafort, two sources who asked not to be identified discussing internal campaign business told NEWSWEEK. Federal campaign records show the McCain campaign paid Davis Manafort $90,000 through July 2007, when a cash crunch prompted Davis and other top campaign officials to forgo their salaries and work as volunteers. Separately, another entity created and partly owned by Davis—an Internet firm called 3eDC, whose address was the same office building as Davis Manafort's—received payments from the McCain campaign for Web services, collecting $971,860 through March 2008.
In an e-mail to NEWSWEEK, a senior McCain official said that when the campaign began last year, it signed a contract with Davis Manafort "in which we purchased all of [Davis's] time, and he agreed not to work for any other clients." The official also said that though Davis was an "investor" in 3eDC, Davis has received no salary from it. As to why Davis permitted the Freddie Mac payments to continue, the official referred NEWSWEEK to Davis Manafort, which did not respond to repeated phone calls. One senior McCain adviser said the entire flap could have been avoided if the campaign had resisted attacking Barack Obama for his ties to two former Fannie Mae executives, which prompted the media to take a second look at Davis. "It was stupid," the adviser said. "A serious miscalculation and an amateurish move." Still, this adviser said, McCain's faith in his campaign manager remains unswerving.