Sen. John McCain secured millions in federal funds for a land acquisition program that provided a windfall for an Arizona developer whose executives were major campaign donors, public records show.
McCain, who has made fighting special-interest projects a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, inserted $14.3 million in a 2003 defense bill to buy land around Luke Air Force Base in a provision sought by SunCor Development, the largest of about 50 landowners near the base. SunCor representatives, upset with a state law that restricted development around Luke, met with McCain's staff to lobby for funding, according to John Ogden, SunCor's president at the time.
The Air Force later paid SunCor $3 million for 122 acres near the base. It was the highest single land transaction of the private lots purchased by the government — three times the county's assessed value and twice the military's estimated value. SunCor also donated another 122 acres. Alan Bunnell, a spokesman for SunCor's parent company, Pinnacle West Capital, said the donation was meant to minimize the company's tax bill and enhance the value of adjacent property it owns.
McCain has long-standing ties to SunCor and Pinnacle West:
• McCain's campaigns have received $224,000 since 1998 from donors connected to Pinnacle West, including $104,100 for his current presidential run, according to a USA TODAY analysis of campaign-finance data compiled by the non-partisan CQ MoneyLine. Donors include employees of Pinnacle West and its subsidiaries, employees' spouses and the company's lobbyists and political committees.
• Pinnacle West's Chief Executive Officer Bill Post, vice president and lobbyist Robert Aiken and former president Jack Davis, who retired in March, are fundraisers for McCain's current presidential campaign. SunCor President Steve Betts, who joined the company weeks after the military land deal, is a former campaign lawyer for McCain and has raised more than $100,000 for his current campaign.
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said the senator's ties to SunCor had nothing to do with his support for the project. The Air Force had a legitimate need for the land and asked for money to buy it in a March 2002 budget planning document, Rogers said in an e-mail.
Rogers said McCain, who took credit for the funding in a floor speech in 2003, wanted to prevent the Pentagon from closing Luke. The military had cited encroaching development in deciding to close another Phoenix-area installation, Williams Air Force Base, in 1993.
"Sen. McCain's interest in this matter was only to support the formal requirements of the Air Force in a way that furthered the interests of the taxpayer," he said.
Bunnell said the company's ties to McCain were not a factor in the land deal. "This was done without any political intentions or anything other than to preserve Luke Air Force Base," Bunnell said.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said McCain appeared to be helping campaign donors.
"Any time the executives of a corporation work hard at raising funds for any candidate, they almost always want something in return," Holman said. "When it comes to SunCor … they were asking for a specific earmark. And McCain delivered."
SunCor seeks help
Executives from SunCor, which owned more than 3 square miles' worth of land near Luke Air Force Base, had complained for years about state and municipal restrictions on development there.