One of John McCain's most celebrated achievements in recent years was his crusade to block a Pentagon contract with Boeing for a new fleet of midair refueling tankers. Incensed over what he denounced as a taxpayer "rip-off," McCain launched a Senate probe that uncovered cozy relations between top Air Force officials and Boeing execs. A top Air Force officer and Boeing's CFO ended up in prison. Most significantly, the Air Force was forced to cancel the contract--saving taxpayers more than $6 billion, McCain asserted.
But last week, McCain's subsequent effort to redo the tanker deal was dealt a setback. Government auditors ruled that the Air Force made "significant errors" when it rebid the contract and awarded the $35 billion project to Boeing's chief rival, partners European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co. (or EADS) and Northrop Grumman. It's likely the Air Force will have to redo the bid yet again, which analysts say will delay the replacement of the fleet's 1950s-era refueling tankers. The auditors' ruling has also cast light on an overlooked aspect of McCain's crusade: five of his campaign's top advisers and fund-raisers--including Tom Loeffler, who resigned last month as his finance co-chairman, and Susan Nelson, his finance director--were registered lobbyists for EADS.