Now that most Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for more regulation of Wall Street’s investment and banking industries, it seems fair to recall Sen. John McCain’s ethics violation early in his Senate career during an era of banking regulation. McCain’s violation then concerned his attempts to assist a savings and loan avoid government regulations. We need to remember that just as deregulation can lead to the sort of problems we face in today’s topsy-turvy economy, so too does regulation spawn its own sort of problems. After all, investors hate any government rule that encumbers their pursuit of wealth and tend to use their political chits to bypass federal rules whenever they can.
“Lincoln Savings and Loan” probably rings few memory bells today among those of us interested in politics, but its former bank president’s role in using campaign contributions to gain favor from the Republican Party presidential nominee, Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., merits resurrection as a cautionary tale of corruption.
Charles Keating Jr., the president of the now-defunct Lincoln Savings and Loan, was an Arizonan and major financial backer of John McCain during the senator’s early years of public service. In the late 1980s Keating needed McCain to help get federal regulators off the back of his Lincoln Savings and Loan. McCain obliged by meeting secretly with highnranking officials of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. The senator had been indebted to Keating for major campaign contributions ever since he first ran for a seat in the House of Representatives in 1982. McCain had received $11,000 from Keating in that year, and when McCain ran first for the Senate in 1986, Keating and his associates funneled $50,000 to McCain’s campaign.
There followed several paid trips for McCain by Keating to the banker’s luxurious vacation home in the Bahamas and also an attempt by McCain’s senatorial mentor, Dennis DeConcini, also of Arizona, to persuade President Reagan to name Keating as U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas.
These tawdry details of favors-for-money came to light in late 1990 during a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into the “Keating Five,” a cabal of influential senators that besides McCain included four Democrats: Alan Cranston of California, Donald Riegle of Michigan, DeConcini, and John Glenn of Ohio. In total these five senators received a total of $300,000 in campaign contributions from Keating.
McCain’s defense before the Ethics Committee was that he provided Keating with the same sort of help that he would for any constituent of Arizona. He did not mention that his wife and father-in-law had invested $359,000 in a Keating shopping center one year before McCain tried helping Keating with federal regulators. When Arizona Republic news reporters confronted McCain with such details, he called them “liars” and played the prisoner of war card, saying “Even the Vietnamese didn’t question my ethics.”
Lincoln Savings and Loan went bankrupt and Keating was charged with 42 counts of fraud for bilking investors out of their life savings. McCain was rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for exercising “poor judgment.”
Fast forward to this year’s presidential election campaign and a sampling of other instances of Sen. McCain’s poor judgment: selecting a know-nothing political extremist as his running mate; insisting on “victory” in the Iraq war without a clue of what “victory” means; declaring the “fundamentals of the economy as strong” just before the Wall Street implosion; suspending his campaign a day before the first presidential debate; banning New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd from his campaign jet; and proclaiming his support for the teaching of “intelligent design” to school children. If judgment were money, Sen. McCain would be broke.
In 1990 McCain was publicly forced to admit that he agreed with the finding of the Senate Ethics Committee, namely that he had exercised “poor judgment.” That the senator owned up to his mistake back then is to his credit. That he used his high office to assist a special interest, and then attacked those who questioned him, is not. That Sen. McCain continues to exercise poor judgment in 2008 should cause even the most ardent Republicans to take pause.
Roger W. Bowen lives is Prospect Harbor. He is the author of “Japan’s Dysfunctional Democracy.”