Verizon, AT&T gave McCain cell towers for Sedona ranch

BY JAMES V. GRIMALDI, Washington Post

Early in 2007, just as her husband launched his presidential bid, Cindy McCain decided to resolve an old problem -- the lack of cellular telephone coverage on her remote 15-acre ranch near Sedona, nestled deep in a tree-lined canyon called Hidden Valley.

By the time Sen. John McCain's presidential bid was in full swing this summer, the ranch had wireless coverage from the two cellular companies most often used by campaign staff -- Verizon Wireless and AT&T.

Verizon delivered a portable tower know as a "cell site on wheels" -- free of charge -- to Cindy McCain's property in June in response to an online request from Cindy McCain's staff early last year. Such devices are usually reserved for restoring service when cell coverage is knocked out during emergencies, such as hurricanes.

In July, AT&T followed suit, wheeling in a portable tower for free to match Verizon's offer. "This is an unusual situation," said AT&T spokeswoman Claudia B. Jones. "You can't have a presidential nominee in an area where there is not cell coverage."

Over the course of the past year, Cindy McCain had offered land for a permanent cell tower and Verizon embarked on an expensive process to meet her needs, hiring contractors and seeking county land-use permits even though few people other than the McCains would benefit from the tower.

Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because Sen. John McCain is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunications services.

McCain and his campaign have close ties to Verizon and AT&T. Five campaign officials, including campaign manager Rick Davis, have worked as lobbyists for Verizon. Former McCain staffer Robert Fisher is an in-house lobbyist for Verizon and is volunteering for the campaign. Fisher, Verizon chief executive Ivan Seidenberg and company lobbyists have raised more than $1.3 million for McCain's presidential campaign and Verizon employees are among the top 20 corporate donors over McCain's political career, giving more than $155,000 to his campaigns.

McCain's Senate chief of staff Mark Buse, senior strategist Charles R. Black Jr., and several other campaign staffers have registered as AT&T lobbyists in the past. AT&T Executive Vice President Timothy McKone and AT&T lobbyists have raised more than $2.3 million for McCain. AT&T employees have donated more than $325,000 to McCain campaigns, putting the company in the No. 3 spot for career donations to McCain, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"It raises the aura of special consideration for somebody because he is a member of the Senate," said Stanley Brand, a former House counsel for Democrats and an ethics attorney who represents politicians of both parties. "Here is a guy who is campaigning as Mr. Maverick and Mr. Reformer and he keeps skirting the edge."

McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said the senator is not a regulator and Cindy McCain received no favors from Verizon.

"Mrs. McCain's staff went through the Website as any member of the general public would -- no string pulling, no phone calls, no involvement of Senate staff," Rogers said. "Just because she is married to a senator doesn't mean she forfeits her right to ask for cell service as any other Verizon customer can."

Verizon navigated a lengthy county regulatory process that hit a snag on environmental concerns. The request ultimately prevailed when Verizon invoked the Secret Service after John McCain secured the Republican nomination.

The Secret Service told The Washington Post it did not formally request the tower. After checking with Verizon and the McCain campaign, Secret Service spokesman Eric Zahren said an e-mail sent in May by the service's technology manager could be perceived as a request for temporary coverage under the service's existing contract with Verizon.

"This was something that was being addressed before we were out there," Zahren said.
The service could have made do with existing cell coverage in the area, he said, because it uses multiple layers of communication, including a secure land radio network.

Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Taylor declined to elaborate. "I am not going to talk about individual customers and their requests," Taylor said.

Located about 12 miles southwest of Sedona, the McCain property sits in a spectacular ravine on a horseshoe turn of Oak Creek. Documents obtained by The Post from Yavapai County, Ariz., under state public records law show how Verizon hired contractors to put a tower on the property at a time when many counted McCain out of the race and McCain was saying he did not need Secret Service protection.

On Sept. 18, 2007, a Mesa, Ariz., contractor working for Verizon surveyed the McCain property. Another contractor drafted blueprints calling for moving a utility shed and installing a 40-foot tower with two antennas and a microwave dish, surrounded by a six-foot wooden fence.

Construction costs would be $22,000, records show. Industry specialists said the figure probably only covers the tower and fence because the antennas, the dish and power source would run the cost into the six figures. On Dec. 4, Cindy McCain signed a letter authorizing Verizon Wireless to act on her behalf to seek county land-use permits.

"Mrs. McCain, like many Americans in rural locations, was interested in receiving cell service, and there was none in the vicinity of their cabin," Rogers said.

Randy Downing, a contractor hired by Verizon to install the tower, told county officials (see letter) on Jan. 27 the project would "improve Verizon Wireless' network coverage for residents, businesses, and visitors." But coverage maps submitted by Verizon to the county show that the tower would fill gaps in unpopulated parts of Coconino National Forest and on about 20 parcels of land, including a handful of residences, and two small businesses open only by appointment. "We are not big cell phone users," said neighbor Linda Kappel, who runs a small gift shop.

"It is a fairly sparsely populated in that pocket along Oak Creek," said Kathy Houchin, the Yavapai County permitting manager.

Three telecommunications specialists consulted by The Post said the proposed site covers so few users that it is unlikely to generate enough traffic to justify the investment. Robb Alarcon, an industry specialist who helps plan tower placement, said the proposed location appeared to be a "strategic build," free-of-charge coverage to high-priority customers. A former Verizon executive vice president, who asked not to be named because he worked for the company, agreed with Alarcon, saying, "It was a VIP kind of thing."

Verizon spokesman Taylor declined to comment when asked if this had been considered to be a "strategic build."

At 3,600 feet in elevation, the valley location was more than 1,000 feet lower than surrounding hills, where a tower would provide more coverage, the specialists said. The site elevation was so low that it was in a flood plain, and the county told Verizon and the McCains on Feb. 1 that the tower should be moved.

It was only a temporarily setback thanks to McCain's political comeback. On March 5, McCain secured the nomination.

Cindy McCain signed a contract with Verizon on May 6. She granted Verizon free use of her property from June 1 until May 1, 2009. In exchange, Cindy McCain "will receive the benefits of enhanced wireless communications arising from operation of the Facility."

Wireless companies often lease property for cell towers for as much as six-figure sums annually. Rogers noted the lack of compensation, saying in an e-mail that Cindy McCain "was offering to GIVE them the land for the tower for goodness sake. It's not as if they were going to pay her rent."

But the wireless specialists said the lack of compensation suggests the purpose of the tower was not income for Verizon but a 'strategic build" for the McCains.

Over Memorial Day, McCain hosted potential vice presidential running-mates at the ranch, but the area still lacked coverage. Richard Klenner, then the wirelss communications chief of the Secret Service, which had recently started providing protection for McCain, sent an e-mail to Verizon. "Is there any way of speeding up the process?" Klenner asked.

That day, Downing, Verizon's contractor, wrote to the county urging approval for either the permanent tower or a cell site on wheels, "to improve Verizon Coverage in the area (including at Senator McCain's ranch). It is imperative that the coverage is improved immediately so that Senator McCain's security personnel, including Secret Service, can communicate while in the area." (Zahren told The Post that Downing's citing of the Secret Service in correspondence with the county was unauthorized.)

A day later, the county issued a permit for the permanent tower, with environmental restrictions. A week later, the county approved Verizon's cell site on wheels.

Over the summer, AT&T's Jones said, the company contacted the McCains for permission to install a cell site on wheels. She said that ordinarily, given the few number of residents, AT&T would not have installed a facility, but McCain's standing as a candidate warranted it.

She said AT&T got a permit for the facility, but a county permitting official said one was not issued.

McCain and his top campaign staff spent much of the last week of August secluded at the ranch preparing for the Republican National Convention, selecting his vice presidential nominee and rehearsing his acceptance speech.

That month The Post filed its records request in Arizona and Verizon abandoned its effort to install a permanent tower. Taylor said the project would be "an inappropriate way" to build its network. "It doesn't make business sense for us to do that," he said.

article originally published at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/washingtonpostinvestigations/2008/10/exclusive_....

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