Jim Rutenberg has a new beat at the New York Times, and it must be called the Get McCain desk. He co-wrote the abominable story about Vicki Iseman in February that attempted to insinuate that McCain had traded legislative favors for sexual favors, only his story didn’t have a shred of evidence of either. Today, in another page-one blockbuster, Rutenberg claims that McCain gave out legislative favors in land-swap deals — but fails to mention that they had widespread support from legislators, businessmen, and environmentalists.

Here’s the heart of the story:

A longtime political patron, Mr. Diamond is one of the elite fund-raisers Mr. McCain’s current presidential campaign calls Innovators, having raised more than $250,000 so far. At home, Mr. Diamond is sometimes referred to as “The Donald,” Arizona’s answer to Donald Trump — an outsized personality who invites public officials aboard his flotilla of yachts (the Ace, King, Jack and Queen of Diamonds), specializes in deals with the government, and unabashedly solicits support for his business interests from the recipients of his campaign contributions.

Mr. McCain has occasionally rebuffed Mr. Diamond’s entreaties as inappropriate, but he has also taken steps that benefited his friend’s real estate empire. Their 26-year relationship illuminates how Mr. McCain weighs requests from a benefactor against his vows, adopted after a brush with scandal two decades ago, not to intercede with government authorities on behalf of a donor or take other official action that serves no clear public interest.

In California, the McCain aide’s assistance with the Army helped Mr. Diamond complete a purchase in 1999 that he soon turned over for a $20 million profit. And Mr. McCain’s letter of recommendation reinforced Mr. Diamond’s selling point about his McCain connections as he pursued — and won in 2005 — a potentially much more lucrative deal to develop a resort hotel and luxury housing.

In Arizona, Mr. McCain has helped Mr. Diamond with matters as small as forwarding a complaint in a regulatory skirmish over the endangered pygmy owl, and as large as introducing legislation remapping public lands. In 1991 and 1994, Mr. McCain sponsored two laws sought by Mr. Diamond that resulted in providing him millions of dollars and thousands of acres in exchange for adding some of his properties to national parks. The Arizona senator co-sponsored a third similar bill now before the Senate.

First, let’s congratulate Rutenberg on his interest in land deals involving the Senate. Unfortunately, he chose the wrong target. Despite several investigations by the AP and the Los Angeles Times, Rutenberg failed to cover or even mention the land deals that directly benefited Harry Reid personally, fueled by land swaps he explicitly sponsored. I wrote about this extensively in 2006, including in a column for the New York Post. Reid’s family got employed by his partner in these deals and both Reid and his family made a lot of money off the sale of federally-owned land.

None of that happened here. In fact, the legislation McCain sponsored didn’t require the sale of the parcels at issue in Rutenberg’s article at all. It authorized the Secretary of the Interior to swap land as deemed necessary and beneficial. Neither McCain nor his family had any personal stake in the land deals that Donald Diamond negotiated with Interior, nor did McCain write legislation requiring Interior to sell anything at all to Diamond. Rutenberg carefully constructs this allegation for deniability:

Mr. McCain has been willing, though, to help sponsor bills authorizing federal land exchanges that Mr. Diamond sought.

Do you notice how that’s phrased? Rutenberg hedges his allegation by noting that McCain sponsored bills that authorized land exchanges, not mandated them. In fact, land exchanges are rather common, and get conducted frequently to add territory to federal park areas. Even Rutenberg notes that they usually serve the public interest. He also reports that the GAO advised Congress to discontinue them, but that was six years after the last of the two bills that McCain sponsored.

In the events, McCain’s legislation had broad support from both business interests and the environmental community. The Sierra Club endorsed both bills at the time, although Rutenberg has them complaining now. The Tucson Audubon Society supported the 1994 bill, which makes the pygmy owl issue rather moot (McCain has supported the protection of the pygmy owl). The National Parks and Conservation Association also backed both bills.

The rest of the article gets into what could best be described as “constituent services”. Rutenberg makes a mountain out of the molehill of McCain’s letters of recommendation for Diamond. In the letter regarding Fort Ord and the sale of golf courses, McCain included the following proviso:

Let me state at the outset that I desire no action to be taken on this matter which would be inconsistent with existing rules, regulations, and ethical guidelines, or that could possibly be construed as unfair or inappropriate. Nor do I expect preferential treatment for any single interest. I expect only such action which is in the best interests of the country.

McCain also refused to make phone calls to the city of Seaside on behalf of Diamond. Letters of recommendation for a constituent in a business deal hardly rises to the level of intercession, but a phone call would have been seen as exactly the kind of intervention McCain finds inappropriate. Despite Diamond’s status as a contributor to his campaigns, McCain refused to take that kind of action, and Diamond proceeded on his own.

The entire article contains nothing more than innuendo and absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing. If two innocuous bills from 14 and 17 years ago are all that Rutenberg can dig up on McCain, then Bill Keller may have to start looking for someone else to man the Get McCain desk. The Times has certainly come up with nothing so far.

Update: Here’s a PDF of the support letters and public statements of the environmental lobby. Note this from the Sierra Club, in the Arizona Republic:

I regret to say that The Republic’s recent reporting on the proposed addition of 3,500 acres to Saguaro National Monument near Tucson is way off base by trying to make a straight-forward project seem like dirty politics. Congressional legislation to authorize the addition would be in the public interest. …

To suggest that our congressional delegation is cynically responding to big-money interests by sponsoring this legislation obscures the merits of the proposal. It is simply without merit. …

Rob Smith, Southwest Representative, Sierra Club

So in October 1990, the Sierra Club lauded McCain for his work on these expansions. In 2008, they try to smear him with them, working with Rutenberg to do so. Niiiiiiice.

Update II: Some of my e-mail have legitimate points in response to this:

  • The letter I quoted for Diamond did not contain that disclaimer; that was from an unrelated letter on another matter.  If so, it doesn’t mitigate the Diamond letter, but neither is the Diamond letter an intervention in any sense of the word.  It’s a character reference, whose impact is certainly debatable — and also open for criticism.

Should members of Congress write these kinds of letters?  Most of them do, if not all of them.  Should McCain get singled out for criticism for it?  Well, he’s running for the Presidency, and that does come with the territory.

  • I don’t think it’s unfair to  put a spotlight on McCain’s activities as a  Senator.  The tone and tenor of this article, however — especially in the first few paragraphs of the story — strongly implies some kind of wrongdoing, which the article then fails to deliver.  If meant as a think piece on how McCain tries to balance his unusually high ethical standards with protecting constituents and trying to represent Arizonans, it doesn’t find its voice until after the jump.  In that, it’s very reminiscent of the Iseman story from February.
  • The Times reports on the Sierra Club’s ex post facto criticism of the deals without ever noting SC’s contemporaneous support for them — and their public defense of the land swaps in October 1990.  That would have presented a more open and honest look at the motivations of McCain and other sponsors of the legislation that the Times highlighted in this article, and perhaps could have called into question the motives of the Sierra Club in badmouthing them today.

Just as with any critcism by a blogger, readers should follow the link and decide for themselves whether I’m on point or off base.