Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Diamond Mining

John McCain, who has always said he’s above reproach when it comes to doing favors for friends, may have some explaining to do about his friendship with Arizona developer Donald Diamond.

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.

A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain, Jill Hazelbaker, said the senator, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, “had done nothing for Mr. Diamond that he would not do for any other Arizona citizen.”

Yeah, as long as they raise money for his campaign.

Mr. Diamond, 80, met Mr. McCain when he was a former prisoner of war running for Congress in 1982. “I liked him right away because I respected what he went through in Vietnam,” Mr. Diamond recalled. When he got to know Mr. McCain and his wife, Cindy, Mr. Diamond said, “it became a love fest.”

Oh, thank you so much for that image.

To raise money for Mr. McCain, Mr. Diamond invites local Republicans to make fund-raising calls from his Tucson office. Ray Carroll, a member of the council that controls zoning in Pima County, Ariz., said Mr. Diamond followed up on one fund-raising session with a thank-you note “on behalf of Mr. McCain,” sending a copy to the senator.

“To reciprocate, if you need any zoning in the county, let me know,” Mr. Diamond wrote. (Mr. Diamond said it was the kind of joke he often made.)

Mr. McCain has campaigned as a critic of the corrupting influence of money and politics, saying he had learned a lesson from a late 1980s scandal over his part in an intervention with banking regulators examining a savings and loan controlled by a patron, Charles Keating. Since then, Mr. McCain vowed to embrace ethics standards that set him apart from many colleagues.

“I have carefully avoided situations that might even tangentially be construed as a less than proper use of my office,” he wrote in his memoir, “Worth the Fighting For” (Random House, 2002).

Mr. McCain once publicly criticized Mr. Diamond as lobbying too hard for his own financial interests. In 1995, Mr. McCain called it “unheard of” that Mr. Diamond had hired a Washington lobbyist to try to block construction of a federal building in Tucson that threatened to take away some of his rental income. “I didn’t talk to him for one year,” Mr. Diamond said of Mr. McCain. “I was annoyed.”

But not so annoyed that he didn’t help sponsor bills that benefited Mr. Diamond. Money, you see, talks.

But it’s okay; Republicans are supposed to be the ones who are cozy with big business. The Democrats are the ones who lose money on land deals with friends and trigger a $60 million federal investigation (see Whitewater, investigation of).