ALEXANDRIA, Va. — An old lawsuit on record at the city courthouse reveals a moment of friction between John McCain's mother and his ex-wife. Years later, McCain and his former wife presented a united front in a lawsuit of their own.
McCain, the Republican candidate for president, calls the first lawsuit a mistake and says he never authorized the second. Both legal actions were settled out of court before they went to trial.
Curiously, although the records clearly list the plaintiffs, McCain's campaign says his mother's 1980 lawsuit was filed "unintentionally" and that the Arizona senator didn't know about or authorize the 1990 lawsuit with his ex-wife, Carol. And McCain's 96-year-old mother, Roberta, says she never sued Carol.
Others involved dispute those assertions.
In the 1980 lawsuit, filed shortly after John and Carol McCain divorced, Roberta sued Carol to reclaim some personal property, including paintings, a needlepoint screen and a pair of earrings. A settlement was reached in 1981.
In a brief telephone interview, Roberta denied filing the lawsuit.
"I have never heard of what you're talking about. ... I will put my hand on a Bible," she said, to attest that she had never sued Carol.
Roberta's denial prompted laughter from her former daughter-in-law.
"Yes, she sued me," Carol said in a brief phone interview.
Roberta's lawsuit sought personal property she claimed Carol was refusing to return. The disputed items included an "18th century Burmise Buddist Preist (Burmese Buddhist priest)" valued by Roberta at $2,000, and a "Butlers Tray for Liquor" she valued at $225.
McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said in an e-mail, "Of course, by all accounts the divorce was completely amicable. After John and Carol McCain's divorce, there was apparently some confusion about belongings that were Roberta McCain's but we understand the court papers were unintentionally filed, and the matter never went further in the legal system. It went nowhere, and was of no consequence."
In the 1990 lawsuit, John and Carol McCain jointly sought $1 million in punitive damages after a property management firm mistakenly threw out some McCain family treasures from a garage the McCains shared with an adjacent townhouse. The lost items included letters McCain wrote to his wife as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
In his e-mail, Bounds said McCain "had no knowledge of the suit: He did not authorize the suit or participate in its filing."
But the lawyer who represented the McCains said she did indeed speak to McCain and get his permission to sue on his behalf.
"You can be sure that I talked to and got the permission of any client who is listed as a plaintiff," said attorney Barbara P. Beach.
It would be a serious violation to file an unauthorized lawsuit, and "I haven't been disbarred yet," Beach said with a laugh.
Beach said she's not surprised, though, that McCain doesn't remember the case. She recalled that Carol was much more deeply involved.
"I don't think it took more than 15 minutes of his time," Beach said. "The fact that they don't remember it doesn't bother me."
The 1990 lawsuit lists five pages of lost property, including autographed pictures of U.S. presidents, Super Bowl programs from every year the game was played and a Chinese Foo dog sculpture.
Some were surely items the family considered priceless: photos of McCain's grandfather alongside Gen. Douglas MacArthur when the Japanese surrendered in World War II, the letters McCain wrote as a POW and the press clippings documenting his release.
Much of the property appears to be memorabilia of Carol's days running the White House Visitors Office under President Reagan, including several dozen wooden Easter eggs from the annual White House Easter Egg Roll, signed by such celebrities as Burt Reynolds and Brooke Shields.
The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount.
According to court papers, when the townhouse next door to the McCains' townhouse changed hands, a property management firm mistakenly threw everything out of the garage, unaware that half the garage belonged to the McCains.
By 1990, only Carol lived in Alexandria, but she and her ex-husband continued to jointly own the property.
The defendants argued the McCains were out of line in seeking punitive damages because there was no evidence anybody acted maliciously.
Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the American Tort Reform Association, said, "Plaintiffs' lawyers will routinely ask for significant damages to try and prompt a settlement."
Carol said she had no interest in discussing details of the two lawsuits.
"What possible difference could it make? It was all 25 years ago," she said. "I wish him well, but I don't talk to reporters."
In his autobiography, McCain has taken responsibility for the breakup of his marriage. Carol was friendly with prominent Republicans and civic leaders, including the Reagans and billionaire H. Ross Perot, who at times treated John McCain coolly after the divorce.