CNN, First Read repeated McCain adviser's false claims about campaign manager's lobbying history

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

CNN and MSNBC.com's First Read blog uncritically repeated McCain campaign adviser Charlie Black's claim that campaign manager "Rick Davis and nobody else at his firm [Davis Manafort] either has been a registered lobbyist in five years." In fact, public disclosure reports filed with Congress show that Davis was registered to lobby in 2005 for Davis Manafort -- three years ago, not five. In addition, in 2006, while no longer registered as a lobbyist, Davis reportedly helped arrange a meeting with McCain on behalf of a Russian aluminum magnate with whom he was "seeking to do business."

In reporting on the controversy over former federally registered lobbyists on Sen. John McCain's campaign, CNN and MSNBC.com's First Read blog uncritically repeated McCain campaign chief political adviser Charlie Black's claim that campaign manager "Rick Davis and nobody else at his firm [Davis Manafort] either has been a registered lobbyist in five years. ... Five years." In a May 19 report on CNN's The Situation Room, congressional correspondent Dana Bash reported as fact that Davis "gave up his status as a registered lobbyist five years ago" and "took a leave from his lobbying firm two years ago." Similarly, NBC/National Journal reporter Carrie Dann wrote on First Read that Black said Davis "has not lobbied for five years." In fact, as Media Matters for America has documented, public disclosure reports filed with Congress show that Davis was registered to lobby in 2005 for Davis Manafort -- three years ago, not five. In 2004 and 2005 -- the years in which Black claimed by implication that Davis wasn't a registered lobbyist -- Davis was registered to lobby for the following clients: Deutsche Post World Net USA, Verizon Corporate Services, Preserve Luke AFB LLC, SBC Telecom, and ImageSat International. Additionally, after 2005, while no longer a registered lobbyist, Davis reportedly arranged a meeting with McCain on behalf of a Russian aluminum magnate whose business he was seeking.

According to a May 20 New York Times article, Davis Manafort "has developed a specialty in recent years in a type of lobbying for which firms do not have to register -- namely, representing the interests abroad of foreign politicians and businessmen." The Times then reported that "[i]n recent years, the company's clients have included the richest man in Ukraine and a former premier of that country whose opponents were supported by Mr. McCain. The Washington Post reported in January that Mr. Davis also set up a meeting in Switzerland in 2006 between Mr. McCain and a Russian businessman, who has been barred from entering this country, apparently because of accusations about past ties to organized crime in Russia."

Indeed, in a January 25 article, the Post reported that in January 2006, Davis "helped set up the encounter between McCain and Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in Switzerland during an international economic conference." The Post added: "At the time, Davis was working for a lobbying firm and seeking to do business with the billionaire." The Post further reported that "Davis was part of Davis Manafort, a lobbying firm that was being paid to provide political advice to pro-Russian and oligarch-funded candidates in Ukraine, according to interviews and news accounts. At the same time, McCain was publicly supporting those candidates' Western-oriented democratic rivals." The article added that "in August 2006, Davis was present again at a social gathering that was also attended by McCain and Deripaska, this time in Montenegro, another Eastern European country in which Davis's firm was working. The three were among a few dozen people dining at a restaurant during an official Senate trip. Davis was a paid consultant to the governing party in Montenegro and had advised it on a just-ratified independence referendum, [McCain spokesman Mark] Salter said. That was why he was at the dinner, he added."

Further, though Davis has taken a leave of absence from Davis Manafort, which he co-founded, he reportedly still owns a share of the firm. According to a May 14 Wall Street Journal article (subscription required), "McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said Mr. Davis receives no income from Davis Manafort, although he still owns a share of the firm. 'He earns no money from their activities while he is on leave,' Mr. Rogers said."

A May 20 First Read post by NBC News deputy political director Mark Murray quoted from the May 20 Times article, including the article's assertion that Davis "was himself a lobbyist until he took a leave of absence from his firm, Davis Manafort, two years ago." But the post did not correct the false assertion in First Read the day before that Davis "has not lobbied for five years."

From the May 20 Times article:

In 2005, Mr. Davis was registered as a lobbyist for corporate clients like the telecommunications company Verizon. Under the campaign's new rules, issued by Mr. Davis on Thursday, lobbyists who are currently registered either for American companies or for foreign governments or businesses cannot be employed by the campaign. They must also disclose their lobbying work even if they are working for Mr. McCain on a part-time, voluntary basis.

But while Mr. Davis took a leave from Davis Manafort in 2006, the company has developed a specialty in recent years in a type of lobbying for which firms do not have to register -- namely, representing the interests abroad of foreign politicians and businessmen.

In recent years, the company's clients have included the richest man in Ukraine and a former premier of that country whose opponents were supported by Mr. McCain. The Washington Post reported in January that Mr. Davis also set up a meeting in Switzerland in 2006 [before Davis left his firm, according to the Post] between Mr. McCain and a Russian businessman, who has been barred from entering this country, apparently because of accusations about past ties to organized crime in Russia. That businessman, Oleg Deripaska, has denied such links.

[...]

The lobbying clout of Mr. Davis, the campaign manager, derives from his longtime Washington connections, which he drew attention to as recently as three years ago.

In January 2005, he apparently pitched executives of Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private investment firm in Cos Cob, Conn., on the idea of putting money into a new firm in which he would be a partner, documents indicate. He told Pegasus Capital's representatives that experienced "Washington insiders" like him could use their ties to advance the interests of companies seeking federal contracts, according to documents obtained by The New York Times. A spokesman for Pegasus did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The proposal never bore fruit. But it came at the same time Mr. Davis was lobbying the Defense Department on behalf of Imagesat, an Israeli company that sells satellite imagery in which Pegasus Capital had invested. He was also then drawing a salary as the part-time president of the Reform Institute, a Washington group Mr. McCain helped found to champion ideals like reducing "the influence of special interests" in politics and government.

From the January 25 Washington Post article:

A top political adviser in Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign helped arrange an introduction in 2006 between McCain and a Russian billionaire whose suspected links to anti-democratic and organized-crime figures are so controversial that the U.S. government revoked his visa.

Rick Davis, who is now McCain's campaign manager, helped set up the encounter between McCain and Russian aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska in Switzerland during an international economic conference. At the time, Davis was working for a lobbying firm and seeking to do business with the billionaire.

There is no evidence that McCain did anything for Deripaska after they met at a social gathering over drinks and dinner. Deripaska was grateful for the introduction, writing a thank-you note to Davis and his partner and offering to assist them in a subsequent business deal, according to a copy of the note obtained by The Washington Post.

With a net worth of more than $13 billion, Deripaska is one of the richest men in Russia and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. McCain has been one of Putin's sharpest U.S. critics, calling for Russia to be kicked out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations because of Putin's anti-democratic activities. The Arizona Republican has also repeatedly complained about the negative impact of Kremlin-linked oligarchs such as Deripaska.

When Deripaska met McCain, Davis was part of Davis Manafort, a lobbying firm that was being paid to provide political advice to pro-Russian and oligarch-funded candidates in Ukraine, according to interviews and news accounts. At the same time, McCain was publicly supporting those candidates' Western-oriented democratic rivals.

The socializing with Deripaska provides a case study in the challenges faced by McCain, a longtime foe of Washington lobbyists who has a well-known lobbyist as his top political aide. Davis, who has been a political adviser to McCain on and off since 1999, was part of a lobbying firm that worked not only for Ukrainian politicians but also for telecommunications firms, a lottery services provider and freight companies.

[...]

The first gathering that brought McCain and Deripaska together occurred in January 2006, when McCain was part of a congressional delegation trip. He and a small group of senators, including Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), met for a drink near Davos, Switzerland, at an apartment where they were greeted by Davis and Deripaska. The group then went to a dinner at the ski chalet of Peter Munk, founder of Barrick Gold, the world's largest gold-mining company, based in Toronto. Participants at the buffet dinner said Munk complimented his sometime business partner Deripaska during his brief remarks to the 40 or so guests.

Later that month, Deripaska wrote to Davis and his partner, GOP political consultant Paul J. Manafort, to thank them for arranging the meeting. "Thank you so much for setting up everything in Klosters so spectacularly," he wrote. "It was very interesting to meet Senators McCain, Chambliss and Sununu in such an intimate setting."

[...]

Davis was the institute's president from January 2003 until December 2005. During that time, he was also a registered lobbyist at Davis Manafort. The institute was located at the Davis Manafort offices until January 2006.

Seven months later, in August 2006, Davis was present again at a social gathering that was also attended by McCain and Deripaska, this time in Montenegro, another Eastern European country in which Davis's firm was working. The three were among a few dozen people dining at a restaurant during an official Senate trip.

Davis was a paid consultant to the governing party in Montenegro and had advised it on a just-ratified independence referendum, Salter said. That was why he was at the dinner, he added.

Afterward, a group from the dinner took boats out to a nearby yacht moored in the Adriatic Sea, where champagne and pastries were served, partly in honor of McCain's 70th birthday.

Salter said neither McCain nor Davis recalls Deripaska being on the yacht after dinner.

From the May 19 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

[begin video clip]

BASH: On the trail, talk of reform is fundamental to John McCain's outreach to independents as he tries to establish himself as a creature of Washington intent on changing it.

McCAIN: There's many programs that I am against that favor special interests.

BASH: Off the trail, McCain is purging his campaign of lobbyists, an aggressive effort to deflect charges of hypocrisy. The latest to go is the most high-profile, Tim [sic: Tom] Loeffler, McCain's national finance chairman, a lobbyist paid $15 million by Saudi Arabia, according to Newsweek. Loeffler left after McCain announced new strict policies last week prohibiting any staffer from being a registered lobbyist or a foreign agent -- new rules rushed into place after two McCain aides who lobbied on behalf of the military regime in Myanmar had to resign.

McCAIN: We found out that this -- these two individuals had represented that country, and so they left. And we will vet everyone very seriously and make sure that it's not a repetition.

BASH: Barack Obama pounced.

OBAMA: John McCain keeps on having problems with his top advisers being lobbyists, in some cases for foreign governments or other big interests that are doing business in Washington. That, I don't think, represents the kind of change that the American people are looking for.

BASH: McCain has long been criticized for having lobbyists play key roles in his campaign. Top adviser Charlie Black was a senior partner in his lobbying firm until March, when he retired with a severance package.

McCain's campaign manager, Rick Davis, gave up his status as a registered lobbyist five years ago, took a leave from his lobbying firm two years ago. But the firm can still use his name to recruit business since it's still on the letterhead.

[end video clip]

BASH: Now, McCain aides say they should be applauded for new strict policies prohibiting staffers from lobbying and working with outside political groups. But privately, some advisers concede these are self-inflicted wounds.

The reason, Wolf [Blitzer, host], is that this is something that some people think could have been done months ago because of the fact that they knew that this would be an issue since John McCain has long crusaded against special interests and has made that a centerpiece of his campaign.

BLITZER: We remember McCain-Feingold very, very well. Dana, thank you.

From the May 19 First Read post:

The latest casualty of the purge is Tom Loeffler, McCain's national finance co-chairman. "It's too bad," Black said of Loeffler's departure, adding that he respects his former colleague's decision. Loeffler left the campaign after NEWSWEEK reported that his firm has collected an eight-figure take from Saudi Arabia in the last six years, and had hired a McCain staffer who double-dipped as a campaign aide and lobbying consultant.

Asked today if questions about potential conflicts-of-interest might be affecting the choices of average American voters, Black responded bluntly: "Hell, no." He was careful to say that Senator McCain is committed to maintaining the integrity of the campaign -- hence his commitment to the re-vetting process. But, Black added, "I do not believe that average voters out there care."

Liberal political group MoveOn.org targeted Black last week in an online ad that linked his former firm to dictatorial regimes in the Philippines and Zaire. Other than such groups, Black said today, "Nobody else cares about it."

He added sarcastically that he's "flattered" to be the target of criticisms from Democrats, but insisted that his circumstance fits the campaign's new standard. "I was in compliance before there was a rule!" he exclaimed. (Black quit from his lobbying post in March to work full time for the campaign. "I have no connection to the firm," he said today, adding that colleague Rick Davis -- McCain's campaign manager and another target of McCain's critics -- has not lobbied for five years.)

"Your past profession should not be injected into a candidate's campaign," he argued, giving as a parallel example the objectivity of prominent journalists who once served as partisan political aides.

"It's absurd."

Posted In
Elections, Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
MSNBC, CNN
Person
Dana Bash
Show/Publication
The Situation Room
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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