WASHINGTON -- Broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson yesterday contradicted statements from Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign that the senator did not meet with Mr. Paxson or his lobbyist before sending two controversial letters to the Federal Communications Commission on Mr. Paxson's behalf.
Mr. Paxson said he talked with Mr. McCain in his Washington office several weeks before the Arizona Republican wrote the letters in 1999 to the FCC urging a rapid decision on Mr. Paxson's quest to acquire a Pittsburgh television station in a controversial three-way deal involving WQED Pittsburgh.
Mr. Paxson also recalled that his lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, likely attended the meeting in Mr. McCain's office, and that Ms. Iseman helped arrange the meeting. "Was Vicki there? Probably," Mr. Paxson said in an interview with The Washington Post yesterday. "The woman was a professional. She was good. She could get us meetings."
The recollection of the now-retired Mr. Paxson conflicted with the account provided by the McCain campaign about the two letters at the center of a controversy about the senator's ties to Ms. Iseman, a partner at the lobbying firm of Alcalde & Fay.
The McCain campaign said Thursday that the senator had not met with Mr. Paxson or Ms. Iseman on the matter. "No representative of Mr. Paxson or Alcalde and Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC regarding this proceeding," the campaign said in a statement.
But Mr. Paxson said yesterday, "I remember going there to meet with him." He recalled that he told Mr. McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."
McCain attorney Robert Bennett played down the contradiction between the campaign's written answer and Mr. Paxson's recollection.
"We understood that he [Mr. McCain] did not speak directly with him [Mr. Paxson]. Now, it appears he did speak to him. What is the difference?" Mr. Bennett said. "McCain has never denied that Paxson asked for assistance from his office. It doesn't seem relevant whether the request got to him through Paxson or the staff. His letters to the FCC concerning the matter urged the commission to make up its mind. He did not ask the FCC to approve or deny the application. It's not that big a deal."
The Paxson deal, coming as Mr. McCain made his first run for the presidency, has posed a persistent problem for the senator. The deal raised embarrassing questions about his dealings with lobbyists at a time when he had assumed the role of an ethics champion and opponent of the influence of lobbyists.
The two letters he wrote to the FCC in 1999, while he was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, produced a rash of criticism and a written rebuke from the then-FCC chairman, who called Mr. McCain's intervention "highly unusual." Mr. McCain had repeatedly used Mr. Paxson's corporate jet for his campaign and accepted campaign contributions from the broadcaster and his law firm.
Mr. McCain himself, in a deposition in 2002, acknowledged talking to Mr. Paxson about the Pittsburgh sale. Asked what Mr. Paxson said in the conversation, Mr. McCain said Mr. Paxson "had applied to purchase this station and that he wanted to purchase it. And that there had been a numerous-year delay with the FCC reaching a decision. And he wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business."
The deposition was taken in litigation over the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law filed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The contradiction in the deposition was first reported by Newsweek yesterday afternoon.
"I said I would be glad to write a letter asking them to act," Mr. McCain testified, recounting the conversation with Mr. Paxson. "But I cannot write a letter asking them to approve or deny, because then that would be an interference in their activities."
The proposed TV deal involved a license swap between Paxson and Christian broadcaster Cornerstone TeleVision of Wall, which operated WPCB Channel 40.
The transaction called for Channel 40 to assume the noncommercial license of WQED's sister station, WQEX-16, and sell its own commercial license to Paxson for $35 million, split between Cornerstone and cash-strapped WQED. Paxson would gain entry into the Pittsburgh market and Cornerstone would move to Channel 16. The deal eventually fell through.
Ms. Iseman's connections to Mr. McCain have come into question this week, after a longtime associate of Mr. McCain's said he had asked Ms. Iseman to distance herself from Mr. McCain and his 2000 presidential campaign to protect the senator's reputation for independence from special interests.
Mr. McCain acknowledged during a news conference Thursday that Ms. Iseman was a friend, but he denied doing anything improper for her or her telecommunications clients.
Mr. Paxson defended Ms. Iseman as a complete professional and said she was at her best working on the Pittsburgh deal. He said they turned to Mr. McCain often when they ran into interference at the FCC, but Mr. Paxson added that Mr. McCain did not always agree with him. In three other major issues, Mr. Paxson said, Mr. McCain took the opposing viewpoint.
Mr. Paxson had used Alcalde & Fay as his lobbying firm in the 1980s, when he founded and ran the Home Shopping Network, an enterprise he later sold. In the mid-1990s, when he launched a plan to create a new national network, he stayed with Alcalde & Fay. In the early 1990s, when Ms. Iseman joined the firm, she became Paxson Communications' chief lobbyist, Mr. Paxson said. Paxson, now known as ION Media Networks, has paid Alcalde & Fay more than $1 million since 1998.
Mr. Paxson saw no particular significance in the meeting with Mr. McCain before his penning the FCC letters. He said Ms. Iseman had an interest in the Pittsburgh transaction because she grew up in the area.
Ms. Iseman, 40, was raised on a farm outside of Homer City, Pa., and attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, graduating in 1990 with a degree in elementary education.
Statements from Mr. McCain's office said Ms. Iseman met only with staff and indicated a staff member was involved in drafting and sending the letter. Thursday's statement went to lengths to say why Mr. McCain could not have met with Mr. Paxson.
"Senator McCain was actively engaged in a presidential campaign in 1999-2000, and according to his calendar, the last day he conducted business in the Senate was November 8, 1999, and was frequently absent from the Senate prior to that date," the statement said. "Between November 22, 1999 and Christmas, the senator did not return to the Senate for any substantive meetings as he was involved in a national book tour and a presidential campaign."