Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain decided to resolve an old problem – the lack of cell phone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, Ariz., nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley.
By the time Sen. John McCain's presidential bid was in full swing this summer, the ranch had wireless coverage from the two cellular companies most often used by campaign staff – Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Verizon delivered a portable tower know as a “cell site on wheels” – free – to Cindy McCain's property in June in response to an online request from Cindy McCain's staff early last year. Such devices are usually reserved for restoring service when cell coverage is knocked out during emergencies, such as hurricanes.
In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon's offer. “This is an unusual situation,” said AT&T spokeswoman Claudia Jones. “You can't have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage.“
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Over the course of the past year, Cindy McCain had offered land for a permanent cell tower and Verizon embarked on an expensive process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits even though few people other than the McCains would benefit from the tower.
Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because John McCain is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunications services.
McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including campaign manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon. Former McCain staffer Robert Fisher is an in-house lobbyist for Verizon and is volunteering for the campaign.
Fisher, Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg and company lobbyists have raised more than $1.3 million for McCain's presidential campaign and Verizon employees are among the top 20 corporate donors over McCain's political career, giving more than $155,000 to his campaigns.
McCain's Senate chief of staff, Mark Buse, senior strategist Charlie Black and several other campaign staffers have registered as AT&T lobbyists in the past. AT&T Executive Vice President Timothy McKone and AT&T lobbyists have raised more than $2.3 million for McCain.
AT&T employees have donated more than $325,000 to McCain campaigns, putting the company in the No. 3 spot for career donations to McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.
“It raises the aura of special consideration for somebody because he is a member of the Senate,” said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats and an ethics attorney who represents politicians of both parties.
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said the senator is not a regulator and Cindy McCain received no favors from Verizon.
“Mrs. McCain's staff went through the Web site as any member of the general public would – no string pulling, no phone calls, no involvement of Senate staff,” Rogers said. “Just because she is married to a senator doesn't mean she forfeits her right to ask for cell service as any other Verizon customer can.”
Verizon navigated a lengthy county regulatory process that hit a snag on environmental concerns. The request ultimately prevailed when Verizon invoked the Secret Service after John McCain secured the Republican nomination.
The Secret Service told The Washington Post it did not formally request the tower. After checking with Verizon and the McCain campaign, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said an e-mail sent in May by the service's technology manager could be perceived as a request for temporary coverage under the service's existing contract with Verizon.
“This was something that was being addressed before we were out there,” Zahren said. The service could have made do with existing cell coverage in the area, he said, because it uses multiple layers of communication, including a secure land radio network.
Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson declined to elaborate. “I am not going to talk about individual customers and their requests,” Nelson said.
Documents obtained by The Post from Yavapai County, Ariz., under state public records law show how Verizon hired contractors to put a tower on the McCains' property at a time when many counted McCain out of the race and McCain was saying he did not need Secret Service protection.