It isn't just the candidate whose reputation has been challenged in some quarters. Ethical questions have arisen about three of Sen. John McCain's most senior campaign aides-John Weaver, Richard Davis, and Terry Nelson. Weaver and Davis, often at odds over strategy, worked for McCain's presidential effort in 2000; Nelson was brought aboard for the current campaign.
Weaver, a seasoned political operative, ran into an ethical storm while employed by the 1996 presidential campaign of then Sen. Phil Gramm, a Texas Republican. Weaver was Gramm's field director but also provided direct-mail services to the campaign through his company, Campaign Services Group. In a nasty dispute, U.S. News has learned, Weaver was accused of bilking Gramm's campaign. The accusations were leveled by Jeb Hensarling, who managed Gramm's effort and is now a prominent Republican House member from Texas.
Billing questions. According to people familiar with the matter, Hensarling dug into the billings and concluded that Weaver had charged the campaign for a lot more mail than his company had reported sending on forms it filed with the post office. One person, who asked not to be identified, says the alleged overbilling amounted to tens of thousands of dollars. Hensarling took the issue to Gramm, who, this person says, "did not have an interest" in recovering the money. Gramm did not respond to a request for an interview.
Charles Black, a political consultant who served as national campaign manager for Gramm, confirmed that the dispute involved "substantial money." Black, who also was a board member of Weaver's company, says the issue became more "heated" after Gramm dropped out of the campaign in February 1996. Black downplayed the matter, however, saying such conflicts were common in high-profile campaigns.
Weaver, too, says it was all just a "disagreement about bills." He says money "was tight" and that Hensarling had challenged "$100,000 or less" in billings. In fact, Weaver says, he believed he was owed money. In the end, he says, "everybody decided to move on." In a statement, Hensarling said there were disagreements in the campaign but that he doesn't spend time "reflecting upon the experiences of 12 years ago."
The questions surrounding Davis concern his part ownership of a company, 3eDC, and its ties to the McCain campaign. Like Weaver and Nelson, Davis, the campaign CEO, is paid $20,000 a month. Additionally, however, Davis's 3eDC has a lucrative contract with the campaign. U.S. News could find no public record showing Davis's ownership interest in 3eDC, but in an interview he acknowledged that he was one of its two owners. McCain's spokesman, Brian Jones, confirmed that Davis "did not disclose his interest in 3eDC to Senator McCain."
3eDC helped build the campaign's website and maintains its infrastructure. Davis declined to disclose the company's contractual arrangement with McCain's operation, but campaign records filed recently show that the company is owed $175,000 for just three months' work. Davis identified the other 3eDCowner as Paul Manafort, his partner in a lobbying firm, Davis Manafort. Manafort is a controversial figure in Washington. He has represented notorious dictators and once described himself as an "influence peddler" in testimony before a House committee examining how he and other Republican operatives profited from a housing program for the poor.
Questions about Terry Nelson, the campaign manager, have emerged previously. Nelson figured in the Texas campaign scandal that led to the indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. The indictment alleges that Nelson, as an official at the Republican National Committee, acted as a conduit when $190,000 in corporate funds was laundered through the RNC to Republican candidates in Texas five years ago. The McCain campaign says Nelson, political director for President Bush in the 2004 election, was never a target of the investigation. He testified before a grand jury and cooperated fully with investigators, the campaign says.
For now, Weaver seems to have won out over Davis in the battle for McCain's ear. Although McCain's aides deny any problems, a well-connected political consultant says: "There is a conflict between John Weaver and Rick Davis. McCain threw Terry Nelson in as a figurehead." Another insider says: "Weaver is totally in charge and has neutralized Davis."
This story appears in the May 28, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.