McCain files federal complaint

Senator says Bush TV ads paid for by Texas' Wyly brothers violate election law.

Published March 6, 2000 12:59PM (EST)

The presidential campaign manager for Sen. John McCain filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission Monday alleging that a recent anti-McCain ad paid for by the seemingly spontaneously created Republicans for Clean Air Committee -- organized and paid for by a number of allies of Texas Gov. George W. Bush -- is in violation of federal laws.

The ad, launched last week in swing areas of New York,
Ohio, California and Vermont, touted Bush as an environmentalist and accused McCain of being a
polluter, a charge disputed by environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. The ad -- and at least a $2.5 million ad buy -- is being paid for by Sam and Charles Wyly, who together have given more than $210,000 to Bush's past two gubernatorial campaigns.

Larry Makinson, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Monday called the ad buy "the biggest infusion of anonymous money in American politics since that bag stuffed with $2 million was found during Watergate." Until Sam Wyly stepped forward to admit his role in the
ad at the end of last week -- after a huge media outcry and the launch of several investigations -- almost everything about "Republicans for
Clean Air" was a mystery.

But Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, said that there was more wrong than the size of the check the Wyly brothers wrote. At a Monday press conference, Davis outlined several charges the campaign was alleging against various Bush allies, the Bush campaign and the Wyly brothers, who paid for the ad and formed Republicans for Clean Air. The charges filed with the FEC join another ad-related complaint the campaign filed with the Federal Communications Commission late last week.

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, claimed the charges were false and that McCain was grandstanding. "He's making very serious allegations, saying we are in violation of the law, when this is something we did not do," countered Karen Hughes, a Bush spokesperson. "He should be ashamed of himself ... There's not one shred of evidence and it simply is not true."

Hughes also charged that "the media should be ashamed for playing along with" the McCain campaign's charges, providing unbalanced coverage of the Wyly brothers' ad and the ensuing controversy. Although the Bush campaign has repeatedly denied knowing anything about the ads, Hughes says, "If you read the [press] reports over the last two days, it's sort of a wink and a nod, like 'Sure they did.'"

Davis said that the charge filed with the FCC was just against the Wyly brothers for an alleged "violation of the disclaimer law." Since Republicans for Clean Air is not a real organization, Davis said, the ad should say "paid for and authorized by Sam and Charles Wyly," Davis said.

The more serious charge, filed with the FEC, claims the Bush campaign "coordinated expenditures," a serious violation of federal law. Since Charles Wyly is a "Pioneer" -- the Bush fund-raisers charged with raising more than $100,000 apiece for the governor's campaign -- he falls into one of two categories in relation to the Bush for President campaign, Davis said.

He is either an official of the Bush campaign, in which case he is not allowed to coordinate independent expenditures from third-party groups, or he is a "conduit," in which case he is permitted to do so. But since Wyly hasn't filed a "conduit report," Davis said, the McCain campaign believes he must be designated an official agent of the Bush campaign.

Makinson called this "a pretty good argument." Trevor Potter, a respected former FEC commissioner, is advising the McCain campaign on this, Makinson said. But, he noted, "It will be months if not years that the FEC makes a ruling on that, and the damage will have been done.

"It's a dramatic example of how the FEC has been unable to control election behavior in politics," Makinson said.

Additionally, Davis said, other individuals with ties with to the Bush campaign are named in the complaint besides the Wylys, including: Tony Fabrizio, whose company manufactured and put the ad on the air, and who is a close advisor to New York Gov. George Pataki, a Bush supporter; Jeb Hensarling, a former business associate of James Francis Jr., one of Bush's best friends and the chairman of the Pioneers; and Lydia Meuret, the treasurer of both Republicans for Clean Air and a political action committee of Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, one of Bush's most ardent congressional supporters.

"This whole thing could be a coincidence," Makinson said. "But it reminds me of the best definition I've ever heard of the word 'coincidence,' which is that you weren't watching half of what was going on."

The weakest aspect of the McCain complaint, according to Makinson, is Davis' charge that the ad does not fit into the FEC's definition of an ad that doesn't advocate the election of one candidate over the other. Though the ad clearly paints Bush as handsome and an environmentalist, and McCain as a rather distasteful-looking polluter, the ads still qualify as issue-advocacy, Makinson argues, because it "doesn't use the magic words 'Vote for' and 'Vote against.'" When asked, Davis disagreed with Makinson's argument.

For Makinson, there is a larger issue at stake: All of this might be completely legal. "It almost doesn't matter whether they're 'coordinating' or not," he says. "Well, of course it matters legally. But on a larger scale, they don't have to coordinate. They're all thinking along the same lines, anyway." And both the Wyly brothers and the Bush campaign "both understand what the goal is and what the tools at their disposal are."

Third-party groups such as Republicans for Clean Air are "527" committees, a classification that allows them to participate in the political process, raising and spending unlimited piles of cash, with little -- if any -- disclosure of who they are.

"I was beginning to think we should call them 'black hole committees,'" says Makinson. "But now I think we should call them 'neutron bomb committees' since they come out of nowhere, they do their damage, they disappear and there's not a trace of where they came from.

"There is nothing in the election laws to prevent this thing from taking place," said Makinson. "The problem is, I wonder if this will be the last of it ... I really think we'll see more of this."

Campaigning in California on Monday, McCain said of the ad paid for by the Wyly brothers -- who he's taken to calling "the Wyly Coyotes" -- that Bush "knows it's wrong."

When pressed, McCain took the statement back. "You're right," he said. "I don't know that."

"Maybe that's what you get with a 'reformer with results,'" McCain said, mocking the new slogan Bush assumed after his loss to McCain in New Hampshire. After all, McCain joked, "He didn't say what kind of results, just 'results.'"

Monday also brought a surprising statement from Geri Barish -- the breast cancer survivor and star of the Bush radio ad insinuating that McCain doesn't care about the disease. Under heavy criticism from other breast cancer activists, Barish told Newsday that, "With all the controversy, I am sorry I did the spot and it's come out the way it did."

Almost a full day after the report was published in the Times, spokesperson Hughes said of Barish's comments that "I'm sorry to hear that; I was not aware of that." The radio spot has been resoundingly criticized for both inaccuracy and insensitivity -- since, as Salon disclosed, McCain's sister is a breast cancer survivor. Hughes said that the ad stopped running on Sunday.

According to several reports, however, the radio ads were running in New York as recently as Monday night.

Anthony York contributed to this report.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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