Randy Scheunemann operated for years deep inside Republican foreign policy circles, a burly, bearded lobbyist with powerful patrons, neoconservative credentials and little public profile.
Today, as John McCain’s top foreign policy and national security advisor, Scheunemann serves as spokesman and surrogate for the probable GOP presidential nominee on issues from NATO enlargement to gun control in American cities.
Scheunemann’s dual roles came into sharp relief, and potential conflict, last week when McCain voiced impassioned support for Georgia after Russia’s incursion into the Caucasus nation Aug. 8. Georgia, as it happened, is one of Scheunemann’s former lobbying clients.
Scheunemann, 48, told reporters on McCain’s plane that the senator from Arizona had spoken by phone to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili “every day since” the crisis began to show his interest in Georgia’s plight.
But McCain’s advisor also had an interest in Georgia.
The pro-Western government in Tbilisi has paid $830,000 to Scheunemann’s two-member lobbying firm, Orion Strategies, since 2004, according to records at the Justice Department’s foreign agents registration office.
In all, the files show, Orion has earned $2.5 million lobbying for foreign governments since 2001. The total includes a $200,000 contract, signed April 17 this year, with Georgia’s National Security Council. McCain spoke by phone with Saakashvili that day and then issued a statement denouncing Russian moves to “undermine Georgian sovereignty,” records show.
Scheunemann, who also served as McCain’s foreign policy advisor in his unsuccessful 2000 White House campaign, personally lobbied McCain or his top aides more than 40 times on behalf of Georgia and other foreign governments, records show.
Orion’s lobbying forms also cite four Senate resolutions that McCain later sponsored or co-sponsored on behalf of Georgia, as well as bills benefiting Orion’s other foreign clients: Latvia, Macedonia, Romania and Taiwan.
Reached by cellphone Friday in Colorado, where McCain was campaigning, the former lobbyist declined to comment and referred all questions to campaign spokesman Brian Rogers.
Rogers denied even the appearance of impropriety in the case. Scheunemann’s former advocacy for foreign governments does not affect the policy advice he gives McCain, Rogers said.
He said Scheunemann “stopped working for Georgia” March 1 and has taken “no compensation” from Orion since May 15, the day McCain barred registered lobbyists from joining his campaign staff to avoid potential conflicts of interest.
McCain’s actions on Georgia are “completely consistent with his record of supporting our allies in a very tough region of the world,” Rogers said. “He’s been a leader on this issue for a very long time.”
McCain first met Saakashvili when he and Scheunemann visited the country in 1997. McCain returned twice, and his experience clearly affects his view of the current conflict.
“This little country was prospering. It’s a democracy. It’s a freely elected government,” McCain said at a fundraiser Thursday in Edwards, Colo. “What we’re seeing now is a gross violation of everything we stand for and believe in.”
Presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama largely agrees with McCain on Georgia. But Obama’s campaign, as well as some experts on ethics in government, contend that Scheunemann’s high-profile role in the McCain campaign raises doubts about the candidate’s promise to end what he calls Washington’s “culture of corruption.”
“It reeks of conflict of interest,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group based in Washington.
“McCain has wrapped himself up with K Street lobbyists,” Holman said. “But this one is really brazen. There’s been an exchange of money when he’s been advising McCain to take some action.”
Ed Davis, director of research at Common Cause, said Scheunemann’s move from lobbyist to advisor is common. Foreign governments, companies, labor unions and other organizations spent a record $2.8 billion to lobby for favorable policies in Washington last year, records show.
“Unfortunately, it’s the way business is done,” Davis said.
But Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, contended that it’s unreasonable to ban paid experts from advising candidates. “If you rule out people who lobby, you probably rule out a lot of talent and connections,” she said.
Still, McCain’s reliance on former lobbyists has become a drag on his campaign.
This month, he was forced on the defensive when it emerged that his campaign manager, Rick Davis, previously worked as a lobbyist for shipping company DHL. The German-owned company plans to close its airport hub in southwest Ohio, putting more than 8,000 people out of work.
Both campaigns unveiled harsh attack ads based on the proposed DHL deal Friday, a clear sign of how potent the issue has become in a crucial battleground state.
At the same time, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), took aim at McCain on Friday for refusing to disassociate himself from Ralph Reed, a conservative activist who worked closely with Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who later pleaded guilt to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.
Reed, who was not charged in the case, e-mailed friends last week to say he had joined McCain’s Victory 2008 campaign team. He urged them to attend a McCain fundraiser this Monday in downtown Atlanta.
McCain aides said Reed is not hosting the event and has no role in the campaign. Indeed, he is hardly a popular figure. Many McCain supporters blame Reed for spreading smears during the South Carolina primary in 2000 that helped sink McCain’s first presidential bid.
McCain has “become a desperate candidate who will say anything and accept money from anyone,” said Waxman, chairman of the House committee on oversight and government reform.
McCain led the high-profile Senate investigation of Abramoff in 2005. Abramoff’s former Washington law firm, Greenberg Traurig, hired Scheunemann at the time to help them with the Senate probe.
By then, Scheunemann carried considerable clout. After several years as a staff aide for congressional committees, he landed a job as senior advisor to Republican Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. When that folded, he became national security advisor to Trent Lott, the Mississippi Republican who was then the Senate majority leader.
The following year, he was reportedly arrested for possession of an unregistered firearm found in his car when he drove to work at the U.S. Capitol. The Washington Times reported at the time that he had forgotten to remove a shotgun after a duck-hunting trip.
But Scheunemann became best known for his hawkish views on Iraq. A week after the 9/11 attacks, he and other prominent neoconservatives wrote President Bush urging a “determined effort” to oust Saddam Hussein even if no evidence linked him to the attack.
“Failure to undertake such an effort will constitute an early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism,” the group wrote.
Scheunemann followed up by founding the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, an advocacy group that demanded regime change.
He also publicly promoted Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile leader later found to have provided false intelligence on Hussein’s suspected weapons of mass destruction.
This year, Scheunemann has spoken on McCain’s behalf to the Council on Foreign Relations and other influential groups. The campaign regularly issues news releases in his name, and he often takes the lead on conference calls to reporters.
On June 26, Scheunemann lambasted Obama at length in one such call after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban in the District of Columbia. “He has voted to allow politically motivated lawsuits,” he complained.
It wasn’t foreign affairs, but Scheunemann knew the issue: He had worked as a lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn., as well as for manufacturers of firearms and ammunition, and sport shooting groups.