McCain OK with aide's lobbying past

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain told USA TODAY on Sunday that he has no problem with his top foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann's past lobbying work.

The fighting between Russia and Georgia has brought renewed attention to Scheunemann and the lobbying firm he founded, Orion Strategies, which received more than $730,000 from Georgia since 2001, records show.

Scheunemann's role as lobbyist and campaign adviser came to light in May, when USA TODAY reported he had contacted McCain's Senate office on Georgia's behalf last year while he was working for the campaign.

Scheunemann in March ended his lobbying work for Orion, which continues to represent Georgia, and formally separated from the firm in May, said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.

"I'm proud to have supported them," McCain said of Georgia in an interview on the campaign plane. "And I'm so proud that so many of my friends have done so, who also believe in freedom and democracy."

McCain said he found it interesting that Barack Obama's campaign called him "confrontational" with Russia.

Yet "rather than worry about the people of Georgia," McCain said, his Democratic rival "worried about whether someone on my staff had supported Georgia or not."

Democratic groups have criticized Scheunemann's past lobbying work as a conflict of interest.

At Orion Strategies, Scheunemann's foreign clients have included Romania, Latvia, Macedonia and Taiwan.

"The fact that John McCain is proud of the lobbyists running his campaign and doesn't understand the conflict of interest his lobbyist-advisers represent shows that he simply cannot be trusted to bring change to Washington," Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, said Sunday.

Campaigning in Nevada, Obama also criticized McCain's advisers as "the same old folks that brought you George W. Bush. The same team."

Scheunemann has been a prominent foreign policy conservative for years. He was an adviser to former senator Bob Dole, both in the Senate and during Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. Scheunemann also advised then-Senate majority leader Trent Lott before leaving to join a lobbying firm, the Mercury Group, in 1998.

McCain's 2000 presidential campaign brought in Scheunemann as a foreign policy adviser. After the 2000 election, Scheunemann returned to lobbying and also joined the board of directors of the Project for the New American Century, a conservative foreign policy think tank.

Scheunemann and others at the think tank wrote to President Bush nine days after the 9/11 attacks, urging "a determined effort to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq." Scheunemann founded a group called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq during the run-up to the March 2003 invasion.

Scheunemann's partner, Michael Mitchell, signed a $200,000 contract for Orion Strategies to represent Georgia on April 17, the firm's Justice Department filings show.

That same day, McCain issued a statement saying he had spoken by phone with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "about Russian moves to undermine Georgian sovereignty."

McCain, an advocate for Georgia democracy for more than a decade, has advocated Georgia's "territorial integrity" since the invasion.

Georgia's internationally recognized borders include the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, now occupied by Russia.

On Sunday, McCain said there are a number of steps the international community can take short of military force to produce "pressures that will change the Russians' behavior."

They include rejecting Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, canceling Russia-NATO military exercises, and possibly speeding up the admission of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.