Did McCain Presidential Campaign Violate Finance Laws with Southeast Asia Trip?
A review of expenditures by the John McCain presidential campaign reveals several odd expenses that raise important questions about the candidate's efforts to bill himself as a populist and reformer - and point to possible Federal Election Campaign Act violations.
In July, the very month in which the odd expenses show up on McCain's financial disclosure report to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), McCain rolled out a new campaign slogan: "Reform - Prosperity - Peace."
The Wall Street Journal reported at the time "his new campaign ad is a biographical piece that stresses his campaign finance reform history."
However, despite several phone calls and e-mail queries to the McCain campaign headquarters by Narco News over the past couple weeks, and promises by his staffers that a response would be provided, no one from the McCain camp, to date, has offered an explanation for the following campaign expenditures registered on July 1 and 2 of this year, as reported to the FEC (link here).
Air FlightsExpenses dispersed July 1, 2008:
Thai Airways International: $741.80
British Airways: $1,549.15
Expenses dispersed July 2, 2008
Air Singapore: $7,335.42
British Airways: $2,690.56
Expenses dispersed July 2, 2008
Vinpers Resort Spa, Khanh Hoa Vietnam: $498.75
[Note: Khanh Hoa is a province of Vietnam; its capital is Nha Trang.]
Caravelle Hotel, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: $539.87
Raffles Hotel, Singapore: $1,418.91
Also of note is a $160 expense dispersed on July 2, 2008, to the Department of State marked as a "travel" expense.
There is no record of John McCain making a campaign visit to Singapore or Vietnam during his presidential bid through July 2. Fox News reported on June 24 that McCain was scheduled to visit Colombia in early July [a trip he did make that coincided with the miraculous rescue of American hostages held by Colombia's leftist guerilla group the FARC]. McCain's campaign staff reports, according to Fox News, that as a candidate McCain has made prior overseas visits to Iraq, Kuwait, France, Germany, Switzerland, Pakistan, Jordan, Israel, the United Kingdom and Canada.
But, again, no mention of Vietnam or Singapore.
FEC regulations prohibit a candidate from paying for travel expenses out of campaign funds, according to Mary Brandenberger, an FEC spokesperson, if those expenses would not have existed "absent the campaign."
The specific FEC regulations related to campaign travel expenses state the following:
... Expenditures for travel relating to a Presidential or Vice Presidential candidate's campaign by any individual, including a candidate, shall, pursuant to the provisions of paragraph (b) of this section, be qualified campaign expenses and be reported by the candidate's authorized committee(s) as expenditures.
... If any campaign activity, other than incidental contacts, is conducted at a stop, that stop shall be considered campaign-related. Campaign activity includes soliciting, making, or accepting contributions, and expressly advocating the election or defeat of the candidate.
That wording would seem to provide the McCain camp with an out, if someone else did make a "campaign-related" visit to Vietnam and Singapore during the period in question.
Bob Biersack, another FEC spokesperson, says the information reported to his agency by candidates does not provide specific details about who actually incurred the expenses for a campaign. He says in the case of the Vietnam and Singapore expenditures, the most that can be discerned from the McCain campaign filings is that the airfare and hotel stays were paid for via a credit card.
For example, Biersack says the charge for the stay at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore "was included on an American Express payment dated 7/2/2008. The total amount of the credit card payment was $1,373,918" - which indicates the hotel stay was one among a host of charges covered by the campaign through a payment made on that card on July 2.
Biersack and Brandenberger both confirm that the only way for the FEC to get more information about the specific charges would be to conduct an audit of the McCain campaign's reported expenses, which would likely only be prompted through an official complaint to the FEC.
As odious as it might sound, one potential explanation for the expenditures, according to some sources, is that the McCain campaign sent investigators to Southeast Asia as part of an opposition research mission to dig up damaging information on rival candidate Barack Obama's childhood in Indonesia. Obama lived in Indonesia as a child from 1967 to 1971.
If that was the case, then it appears the trip expenses could legitimately be covered by the McCain campaign - and Singapore is only a short hop away from Indonesia. However, no expenses show up on the McCain FEC ledger involving Indonesia during the period under review.
In addition, the hotels involved in these expenditures are all upscale facilities. The Raffles Hotel in Singapore, for example, is an historic, popular destination for dignitaries and famous people. Among its notable past guests were pop star Michael Jackson, actress Elizabeth Taylor, former President George H. Bush and Queen Sofia of Spain.
It just doesn't seem like the kind of place where you would put up sweaty investigators on a campaign dirt-gathering mission. Besides, why would such an opposition research mission involve stays at fancy hotels in Vietnam?
However, there is one other plausible explanation for the expenses. From mid-June through the end of that month, John McCain's wife, Cindy, and her daughter Meghan, were both in Vietnam and Singapore as part of what the McCain camp billed at the time as a non-campaign "humanitarian" mission to help bring attention to the plight of poor children in Southeast Asia. Evidence that Cindy and Meghan McCain traveled to the regions (including Singapore) where the hotel stays were booked can be found on Meghan McCain's "non-campaign" blog at this link.
A June 10 Associated Press story describes the McCains' trip this way:
Cindy McCain ranged far afield from the U.S. presidential campaign trail Thursday to showcase her charity work helping Vietnamese kids born with facial deformities.
... She visited the coastal town of Nha Trang where about 100 children born with cleft palates and cleft lips were awaiting free plastic surgery provided by the U.S. charity Operation Smile. The operations will take place on one of the U.S. Navy's floating hospitals, the USNS Mercy.
"This is what I do, and this is what revitalizes me, personally," she said. "The campaign is extremely important, of course, but this is also important to me, and so you try to balance everything."
Cindy McCain's comments to the AP would seem to indicate that she was not on a campaign trip. That perception is reinforced by a June 19 report by the French news service AFP:
McCain's staff stressed that her visit [to Vietnam] was private and not related to the political campaign of her 71-year-old husband, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party. She will also visit Thailand and Cambodia during her trip to Asia, on which she has been accompanied by Meghan, the couple's 23-year-old daughter.
And a June 13 advance story on Cindy McCain's trip by the Politico blog also leaves a similar impression of the h3umanitarian nature of the trip:
Cindy McCain will travel to three countries in Southeast Asia on a charitable mission next week, per a McCain aide.
The countries are not being disclosed for security reasons, but McCain is to spend a week in the region, with the first portion of the trip alongside other members of Operation Smile, the organization that provides facial reconstruction to children. She'll then travel with officials from the World Food Program.
Politico points out that Cindy McCain serves on the board of Operation Smile.
However, Cindy McCain did garner a lot of press during her visit to Southeast Asia that projects conflicting images of the purpose of her journey.
In an interview with CNN, she addressed issues related to the presidential campaign in a clear effort to bolster her husband's image. By contrast, in a segment she did for ABC's Good Morning America, Cindy McCain appears to paint her work in Southeast Asia as a humanitarian mission undertaken because of her deep concern about the plight of poor Third World children.
Prior to flying back to the United States, Cindy McCain and her daughter made a stopover in London, where Cindy co-hosted with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger a fundraiser for the McCain Campaign on June 26 - an event expected to raise some $500,000 for her husband's campaign, according to an MSNBC report. No hotel expenses show up on the McCain campaign's FEC report for that London visit. However, two expenses that do appear to be related are a $14,662 payment on June 16 to London-based Frances Prenn, a fundraising specialist; and a $5,379 payment on June 2 to London-based The Wren Press Ltd., which prints party invitations.
So, given the London fundraising effort and the CNN interview, it appears that the Vietnam- and Singapore-related airfare and hotel expenses, if they are attributable to Cindy McCain, might well qualify as campaign-related expenses - depending on how far the FEC is willing to stretch its rules.
But if that is the case, then both the media and the public were sold a bill of goods when Cindy McCain tried to pass off her trip to Southeast Asia as a mission of the heart to help bring attention to the plight of poor children. Rather, it would seem, in such a case, that those children were used as little more than props to advance the McCain campaign's agenda - one in which Cindy McCain slummed it by day for the bright lights of the TV cameras to bolster her husband's campaign and by night basked in the luxury of upscale hotels.
But we cannot know for certain what really happened, unless, and until, the McCain campaign provides the specific details of why the Vietnam and Singapore expenses show up on its campaign expenditure ledger.
The Southeast Asia mystery doesn't represent the first time that the McCain campaign has come under scrutiny for allegedly playing fast and lose with campaign finance rules with respect to foreign visits - which seems to run counter to the candidate's claims of being a reformer and populist.
From an April 24 press release issued by the group, called Judicial Watch:
Judicial Watch, the public interest group that investigates and prosecutes government corruption, announced today that it filed a formal complaint, dated April 22, 2008, with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) related to a fundraising luncheon held at London's Spencer House to benefit Senator John McCain's presidential campaign. The venue for the event was apparently donated to the campaign by foreign nationals, in violation of federal campaign finance laws.
FEC campaign finance records reflect that the McCain campaign made a $55,377 payment to Spencer House on May 5, within two weeks of Judicial Watch's complaint.
Likewise, the Democratic National Committee cried foul over a McCain visit to Ottawa, Canada, in late June - a trip that occurred at the same time his wife was touring Southeast Asia on her "humanitarian" mission.
The Democratic National Committee today filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of State seeking information about possible violations of the Hatch Act in connection to John McCain's events in Ottawa today. The FOIA request follows reports that McCain campaign officials requested assistance in arranging a $100-a-plate luncheon speech from U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins.
The McCain camp responded to the allegations, as follows, according to a June 19 Washington Post report:
A McCain spokesman said that while the campaign pays travel costs for the trip, the luncheon, held by the Economic Club of Canada, is not a fundraiser and not a campaign event. He said the $100-per-person ticket price for the event is to cover the cost of the lunch and will not benefit the campaign.
"It's not a fundraiser. That's to pay for their own lunch. That is not for campaign coffers," Brian Rogers said. "The Ottawa speech is not in our view a campaign-related event. Thus, anything related to that is not political."
So it seems not all is as it seems in the land of campaign image building.
In the future, it might be wise for all members of the press (and the public) to cut to the chase of these apparent hypocrisies by demanding to know, as a precondition of any press coverage, where the line is between campaign hype and authenticity. And it seems that following the money is the only way to get at that truth.
And absent transparency by the campaigns themselves, it also appears that money trail remains obscured. The FEC, it seems, doesn't keep those kinds of records - despite the much-vaunted campaign finance reform that one candidate in this election points to as evidence of his populist reformer credentials.