May 9, 2008 / 5:19 AM / 9 years ago

McCain pushed land swap said to have helped backer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential hopeful John McCain pushed to let an Arizona rancher trade remote land for federally owned acres ready for development, a swap that stands to enrich a top campaign fund-raiser, the Washington Post said on Friday.

Initially reluctant to support the swap, the senator from Arizona became instrumental in pushing the deal through Congress after rancher Fred Ruskin and the Yavapai Ranch Limited Partnership hired lobbyists that included key McCain supporters, the paper said.

They included his 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, the paper said.

When the legislation passed in November 2005, Ruskin gave the job of building as many as 12,000 homes to SunCor Development, a firm in Tempe, Arizona, run by Steven Betts, a longtime McCain supporter who has raised more than $100,000 for the presumptive Republican nominee, the Post said. Betts said he and McCain never discussed the deal, it added.

A spokesman for the McCain campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Audubon Society described the exchange as the largest in Arizona history, the Post said. It said it involved more than 55,000 acres of land, including rare expanses of desert woodland and pronghorn antelope habitat.

The deal triggered 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, the paper said.

Although the bill called for the two parcels to be of equal value, a federal forestry official told a congressional committee he was concerned "the public would not receive fair value" for its land. A formal appraisal has not yet 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 receive has brought as much as $120,000 per acre, the Post reported.

It quoted Betts as saying in an interview there was "absolutely no" connection between his contributions to McCain's presidential bids and the deal involving Ruskin and the Yavapai partnership.

While his company's possible involvement was discussed casually before the bill's passage, Betts told the Post SunCor did not sign on to the project until after its passage.

"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 from the Post.

Betts is among a string of donors who have benefited from McCain-engineered land swaps, the Post said. In 1994, the senator helped a lobbyist for land developer Del Webb Corp pursue an exchange in the Las Vegas area, it said, citing the Center for Public Integrity.

McCain sponsored two bills, in 1991 and 1994, sought by donor Donald Diamond that yielded the developer thousands of acres in trade for national parkland, the paper said.

Reporting by Jim Wolf, editing by Todd Eastham

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