Sen. John McCain championed legislation that will let an Arizona rancher trade remote grassland and ponderosa pine forest here for acres of valuable federally owned property that is ready for development, a land swap that now stands to directly benefit one of his top presidential campaign fundraisers.
Initially reluctant to support the swap, the Arizona Republican became a key figure in pushing the deal through Congress after the rancher and his partners hired lobbyists that included McCain's 1992 Senate campaign manager, two of his former Senate staff members (one of whom has returned as his chief of staff), and an Arizona insider who was a major McCain donor and is now bundling campaign checks.
When McCain's legislation passed in November 2005, the ranch owner gave the job of building as many as 12,000 homes to SunCor Development, a firm in Tempe, Ariz., run by longtime McCain supporter Steven A. Betts, who has raised more than $100,000 for the presumptive Republican nominee. Betts said he and McCain never discussed the deal.
The Audubon Society described the exchange as the largest in Arizona history. The swap involved more than 55,000 acres of land in all, including rare expanses of desert woodland and pronghorn antelope habitat. The deal brought an outcry from some Arizona environmentalists when it was proposed in 2002, partly because it went through Congress rather than a process that allowed more citizen input.
Although the bill called for the two parcels to be of equal value, a federal forestry official told a congressional committee that he was concerned that "the public would not receive fair value" for its land. A formal appraisal has not begun. A town official opposed to the swap said other Yavapai Ranch land sold nine years ago for about $2,000 per acre, while some of the prime commercial land near a parcel the developers will get has brought as much as $120,000 per acre.
In an interview, Betts said there is "absolutely no" connection between his contributions to McCain's presidential bids and the deal.
While his company's possible involvement was discussed casually before the bill's passage, Betts said SunCor did not sign on to the project until afterward. "At no time during the consideration of this legislation was there any involvement by officials of SunCor," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said in a written response to questions.
Betts is among a string of donors who have benefited from McCain-engineered land swaps.
In 1994, the senator helped a lobbyist for land developer Del Webb Corp. pursue an exchange in the Las Vegas area, according to the Center for Public Integrity. He sponsored two bills, in 1991 and 1994, sought by donor Donald R. Diamond that yielded the developer thousands of acres in exchange for national parkland.
In the late 1990s, McCain promoted a deal in Arizona's Tonto National Forest involving property part-owned by Great American Life Insurance, a company run by Carl Lindner, a prolific contributor to national political parties and presidential candidates.
With the federal government owning vast stretches of Arizona land, and pressure to meet increasing housing demands, McCain now views land swaps as beneficial, Rogers said.
"He certainly recognizes that there have been well- documented abuses of legislative land exchanges, but every land exchange bill introduced by Sen. McCain has been written with the highest regard for the public interest."