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Did Verizon give John McCain special treatment?

Yesterday, the Washington Post’s James Grimaldi published a fairly damning piece suggesting, with a good deal of evidence, that John and Cindy McCain were beneficiaries of special treatment from Verizon and AT&T—the implication being that the companies had sought to curry favor with the former Senate Commerce committee chairman by erecting cell phone towers at the McCains’ remote Arizona ranch.


ATLANTIC EXCLUSIVE: Verizon's internal map of the McCain ranch (click here for a larger view)

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers responded that the towers were temporary, the result of a Secret Service request and, while conceding that Cindy McCain had made a separate, earlier request for the towers that predated her husband’s status as Republican presidential nominee, added, “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.” Today, a Verizon spokesman, Jeffrey Nelson, took greater umbrage, attacking the Post story as “wrong” and stating that the company, after studying McCain’s request, decided in August not to install a permanent tower at the ranch. “It doesn’t make business sense for us to do that,” Nelson told the Post.

So is this an innocent mix-up, or did McCain get special treatment from Verizon? The Post piece points out that Verizon’s CEO Ivan G. Seidenberg is a McCain bundler who has raised more than $1.3 million, and the company’s head Washington lobbyist, Robert Fisher, is a former McCain staffer. That alone is intriguing, but not, of course, evidence of any wrongdoing. But putting up a cell phone tower is a process that entails many legal and regulatory hurdles that create a lengthy public record (some of which Grimaldi draws on for his piece). And the closer you look, the less satisfying McCain’s—and especially Verizon’s—account of the towers turns out to be. Whatever its motivation, Verizon plainly went to considerable effort and expense to pursue building a permanent tower on the McCains’ ranch.

Here, for instance, is the 200-page environmental assessment Verizon commissioned to study McCain’s land, and filed with the FCC. It was no small process. The group that Verizon hired to conduct the study, EBI Consulting, in turn had to subcontract a local archeological firm, Aztlan Archeology (page 145), to make sure the tower wasn’t erected on Indian burial grounds or risked causing an eyesore. Laurie Slawson, the archeologist who wrote the report, explained to me that Aztlan had examined a “prehistoric rock ring” (page 160) discovered at the proposed site and contacted about a dozen local Indian tribes, from Hopis to Havasupai, to make sure no cell phone tower arose on ancient Indian burial grounds (which, she says, does happen periodically and necessitates an expensive relocation process to less-sacred areas). The McCain site did contain archeological evidence of a long-ago Indian presence—a fire pit that Slawson attributes to the Hohokam, a prehistoric agrarian tribe—though apparently nothing sacred enough to stand in the way of wireless technology.

What’s clear from the report is that the process of putting up a tower required a lot of work—in addition to consultants and archeologists and Indian tribes, it meant notifying all sorts of government agencies, as the report lays out. What’s also clear from the public record is that Verizon knew full well whose non-sacred Indian land this ranch belonged to. Though the formal, bureaucratic name for the McCain’s ranch seems to be “AZ 2 Hidden Valley Ranch,” Verizon’s internal map, obtained by The Atlantic (it was part of a Verizon engineer's report on the property), refers to it as “John McCain’s cabin.” So while Cindy McCain may indeed have requested the tower over the web like an ordinary millionaire rancher with spotty phone reception, Verizon was well aware that she was anything but that. (As of this posting, Jeffrey Nelson, the Verizon spokesman, hadn’t returned my call.)

All of this suggests a number of things: Rogers looks to have been correct in stating that the Secret Service asked for, and received, temporary towers—but that doesn’t address the parallel issue of the permanent towers, long underway until just recently, that lay at the heart of the Post piece and in the public record. The McCains may not have asked Verizon for any special favors—but, wittingly or not, they sure look like they were about to receive them. To my mind, Verizon looks worst of all: the company is claiming that it abandoned the tower because it wouldn’t “make business sense to do it.” In a sense, this is self evident: you don’t have to look any further than a map of the area to see what a remote and sparsely populated place is “AZ 2 Hidden Valley Ranch.” And so the only reason to embark on the two-year process of lawyers, regulators, consultant, archeologists, and Indians is if you’re seeking a payoff of another kind.