WASHINGTON — John McCain's chief foreign policy adviser and his business partner lobbied the senator or his staff on 49 occasions in a 3 1/2-year span while being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the government of the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The payments raise ethical questions about the intersection of Randy Scheunemann's personal financial interests and his advice to the Republican presidential candidate who is seizing on Russian aggression in Georgia as a campaign issue.
McCain warned Russian leaders Tuesday that their assault in Georgia risks "the benefits they enjoy from being part of the civilized world."
On April 17, a month and a half after Scheunemann stopped working for Georgia, his partner signed a $200,000 agreement with the Georgian government. The deal added to an arrangement that brought in more than $800,000 to the two-man firm from 2004 to mid-2007. For the duration of the campaign, Scheunemann is taking a leave of absence from the firm.
"Scheunemann's work as a lobbyist poses valid questions about McCain's judgment in choosing someone who _ and whose firm _ are paid to promote the interests of other nations," said New York University law professor Stephen Gillers. "So one must ask whether McCain is getting disinterested advice, at least when the issues concern those nations."
"If McCain wants advice from someone whose private interests as a once and future lobbyist may affect the objectivity of the advice, that's his choice to make."
McCain has been to Georgia three times since 1997 and "this is an issue that he has been involved with for well over a decade," said McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.
McCain's strong condemnation in recent days of Russia's military action against Georgia as "totally, absolutely unacceptable" reflects long-standing ties between McCain and hardline conservatives such as Scheunemann, an aide in the 1990s to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.
Scheunemann, who also was a foreign policy adviser in McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, has for years traveled the same road as McCain in pushing for regime change in Iraq and promoting NATO membership for Georgia and other former Soviet republics.
While their politics coincide, Russia's invasion of Georgia casts a spotlight on Scheunemann's business interests and McCain's conduct as a senator.
Scheunemann's firm lobbied McCain's office on four bills and resolutions regarding Georgia, with McCain as a co-sponsor or supporter of all of them.
In addition to the 49 contacts with McCain or his staff regarding Georgia, Scheunemann's firm has lobbied the senator or his aides on at least 47 occasions since 2001 on behalf of the governments of Taiwan and Macedonia, which each paid Scheunemann and his partner Mike Mitchell over half a million dollars; Romania, which paid over $400,000; and Latvia, which paid nearly $250,000. Federal law requires Scheunemann to publicly disclose to the Justice Department all his lobbying contacts as an agent of a foreign government.
After contacts with McCain's staff, the senator introduced a resolution saluting the people of Georgia on the first anniversary of the Rose Revolution that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power.
Four months ago, on the same day that Scheunemann's partner signed the latest $200,000 agreement with Georgia, McCain spoke with Saakashvili by phone. The senator then issued a strong statement saying that "we must not allow Russia to believe it has a free hand to engage in policies that undermine Georgian sovereignty."
Rogers, the McCain campaign spokesman, said the call took place at the request of the embassy of Georgia. And McCain campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace added that the senator has full confidence in Scheunemann. "We're proud of anyone who has worked on the side of angels in fledgling democracies," she said in an interview.
McCain called Saakashvili again on Tuesday. "I told him that I know I speak for every American when I said to him, today, we are all Georgians," McCain told a cheering crowd in York, Pa. McCain's Democratic rival, Barack Obama, had spoken with Saakashvili the day before.
In 2005 and 2006, McCain signed onto a resolution expressing support for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia; introduced a resolution expressing support for a peace plan for Georgia's breakaway province of Ossetia; and co-sponsored a measure supporting admission of four nations including Georgia into NATO.
On Tuesday, McCain told Fox News that "as you know, through the NATO membership, ... if a member nation is attacked, it is viewed as an attack on all."
Scheunemann's lobbying firm is one of three that he has operated since 1999, with clients including BP Amoco, defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and the National Rifle Association.
Scheunemann is part of the community of neoconservatives who relentlessly pushed for war in Iraq.
No one in Washington is more closely aligned with the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq than prominent neoconservatives, who for years had regime change in Iraq as a goal as part of their philosophy that the United States shouldn't be reluctant to use its power, both diplomatic and military, to spread democracy and to guarantee world order.
Now, McCain and other politicians who pushed for the invasion are seeking to emphasize the progress, albeit fragile, of the current troop surge in Iraq.
In the months before the war began, Scheuenemann ran the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, set up in November 2002 when public support for the looming invasion was eroding.
Before that, Scheunemann was on board with the Project for the New American Century, whose letter to Bush nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks pointed to Iraq as a possible link to the terrorists.
The letter said American forces must be prepared to support "by all means necessary" the U.S. government's commitment to opponents of Saddam Hussein.
Scheunemann was among the letter's 37 signers, a Who's Who of neoconservative luminaries including William Kristol and Richard Perle.
If anything, Scheunemann's duties have been enhanced from McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, when Scheunemann also advised McCain on national security and foreign policy issues.
Earlier in his political career, McCain displayed the kind of caution that could be expected from someone who fought in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war.
In 1983, McCain urged U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. "I do not see any obtainable objectives in Lebanon, and the longer we stay there, the harder it will be to leave," he said.
As the United States prepared for the first Gulf war, McCain was among a handful of members in Congress who began raising caution flags about the operation.
"If you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think support will erode significantly," said McCain. "Nor should it be supported. We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood."