New reports are further muddying the picture of what exactly happened in 1999 surrounding John McCain's request to speed up a Federal Communications Commission decision on a deal involving a Pittsburgh TV station, a matter that is central to new questions over McCain's relationship with lobbyists and special interests.
One report in The Washington Post on Saturday says that the broadcasting company official who benefited from two 1999 letters written by McCain to the FCC disputes McCain's recollection of discussions between the two men.
That report says Lowell "Bud" Paxson, then chief of Paxson Communications — who was seeking to buy the Pittsburgh TV station — recalls directly asking McCain for help in a meeting at McCain's senate office. Paxson said he believed his lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, likely was with him in that meeting.
"I remember going there to meet him," Paxson said, according to the Post. He also recalled telling McCain: "You're head of the Commerce Committee. The FCC is not doing its job. I would love for you to write a letter."
But a separate report, by The Associated Press, says that another Paxson Communications official disputes Bud Paxson's account, and said he believes McCain's account that the two never met in person.
Dean Goodman, who was in charge of the Paxson Communication's lobbying efforts in 1999, told The Associated Press he doubts the former chief executive's recollection, and said he does not recall such a meeting.
Goodman, who left the company a year and a half ago, took issue with that account in a telephone interview from West Palm Beach, Fla., according to the AP.
"I never met with or discussed this with Senator McCain," Goodman said. "I don't recall Bud meeting with McCain. It would be extremely rare that there would be a meeting that I didn't attend, and I can tell you that I didn't have a meeting with McCain on this issue."
"Whether Bud discussed it with him or not, via some other mechanism, I can't rule it out," Goodman added. But, he said, "I don't think there was a meeting."
McCain's campaign released a statement this week denying that he met personally with Paxson or Iseman on the FCC matter.
McCain at the time was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which had oversight of the FCC. At the time McCain sent the letter, the FCC chairman responded to McCain saying he believed the letter was interfering with matters before the commission; McCain said he was only trying to speed along a process that seemed unduly delayed — a situation reported in the media at the time. McCain does not dispute that Paxson wanted help in the matter.
The Post says that McCain also acknowledged talking directly with Paxson in a 2002 deposition, in which McCain said that Paxson "had applied to purchase this station. ... 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," a fact reported by Newsweek late Friday.
The letters further raised eyebrows after it became known that McCain flew on Paxson's corporate jet, and received campaign contributions from the company.
McCain's campaign responded Saturday, again saying that McCain does not remember any meeting with Paxson or Iseman on the issue.
"Senator McCain does not recall directly discussing the issue with Mr. Paxson or any representative of Paxson," said McCain campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker in a prepared statement.
The campaign said his 1999 Senate schedule does not show any meetings between McCain and Paxson or any of Paxson's representatives on this issue. The campaign said the schedule shows no meetings with Paxson that year, but shows one meeting in 1998 and one in 2000, months before and after the letters were sent.
The latest reports come on the heels of a heated dispute over a report published late Wednesday in The New York Times, which suggested that McCain might have had an improper romantic relationship with Iseman. The story provided no firm evidence of the allegation, only that aides were concerned about the possibility. Both McCain and Iseman have denied the allegation.
McCain attorney Robert Bennett — who McCain hired in response to the Times investigation leading up to this week's piece — dismissed the severity of the discrepancies between Paxson's and McCain's recollections.
"We understood that he [McCain] did not speak directly with him [Paxson]. Now it appears he did speak to him. What is the difference? ... 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," Bennett told the Post.