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McCain aide's dual roles intersect

Randy Scheunemann is a former lobbyist for Georgia, a country the candidate strongly supports in its crisis.

August 17, 2008|Bob Drogin | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Randy Scheunemann operated for years deep inside Republican foreign policy circles, a burly, bearded lobbyist with powerful patrons, neoconservative credentials and little public profile.

Today, as John McCain's top foreign policy and national security advisor, Scheunemann serves as spokesman and surrogate for the probable GOP presidential nominee on issues from NATO enlargement to gun control in American cities.

Scheunemann's dual roles came into sharp relief, and potential conflict, last week when McCain voiced impassioned support for Georgia after Russia's incursion into the Caucasus nation Aug. 8. Georgia, as it happened, is one of Scheunemann's former lobbying clients.

Scheunemann, 48, told reporters on McCain's plane that the senator from Arizona had spoken by phone to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "every day since" the crisis began to show his interest in Georgia's plight.

But McCain's advisor also had an interest in Georgia.

The pro-Western government in Tbilisi has paid $830,000 to Scheunemann's two-member lobbying firm, Orion Strategies, since 2004, according to records at the Justice Department's foreign agents registration office.

In all, the files show, Orion has earned $2.5 million lobbying for foreign governments since 2001. The total includes a $200,000 contract, signed April 17 this year, with Georgia's National Security Council. McCain spoke by phone with Saakashvili that day and then issued a statement denouncing Russian moves to "undermine Georgian sovereignty," records show.

Scheunemann, who also served as McCain's foreign policy advisor in his unsuccessful 2000 White House campaign, personally lobbied McCain or his top aides more than 40 times on behalf of Georgia and other foreign governments, records show.

Orion's lobbying forms also cite four Senate resolutions that McCain later sponsored or co-sponsored on behalf of Georgia, as well as bills benefiting Orion's other foreign clients: Latvia, Macedonia, Romania and Taiwan.

Reached by cellphone Friday in Colorado, where McCain was campaigning, the former lobbyist declined to comment and referred all questions to campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.

Rogers denied even the appearance of impropriety in the case. Scheunemann's former advocacy for foreign governments does not affect the policy advice he gives McCain, Rogers said.

He said Scheunemann "stopped working for Georgia" March 1 and has taken "no compensation" from Orion since May 15, the day McCain barred registered lobbyists from joining his campaign staff to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

McCain's actions on Georgia are "completely consistent with his record of supporting our allies in a very tough region of the world," Rogers said. "He's been a leader on this issue for a very long time."

McCain first met Saakashvili when he and Scheunemann visited the country in 1997. McCain returned twice, and his experience clearly affects his view of the current conflict.

"This little country was prospering. It's a democracy. It's a freely elected government," McCain said at a fundraiser Thursday in Edwards, Colo. "What we're seeing now is a gross violation of everything we stand for and believe in."

Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama largely agrees with McCain on Georgia. But Obama's campaign, as well as some experts on ethics in government, contend that Scheunemann's high-profile role in the McCain campaign raises doubts about the candidate's promise to end what he calls Washington's "culture of corruption."

"It reeks of conflict of interest," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group based in Washington.

"McCain has wrapped himself up with K Street lobbyists," Holman said. "But this one is really brazen. There's been an exchange of money when he's been advising McCain to take some action."

Ed Davis, director of research at Common Cause, said Scheunemann's move from lobbyist to advisor is common. Foreign governments, companies, labor unions and other organizations spent a record $2.8 billion to lobby for favorable policies in Washington last year, records show.

"Unfortunately, it's the way business is done," Davis said.

But Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, contended that it's unreasonable to ban paid experts from advising candidates. "If you rule out people who lobby, you probably rule out a lot of talent and connections," she said.

Still, McCain's reliance on former lobbyists has become a drag on his campaign.

This month, he was forced on the defensive when it emerged that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, previously worked as a lobbyist for shipping company DHL. The German-owned company plans to close its airport hub in southwest Ohio, putting more than 8,000 people out of work.

Both campaigns unveiled harsh attack ads based on the proposed DHL deal Friday, a clear sign of how potent the issue has become in a crucial battleground state.

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