Sounding like Deep Throat in "All the President's Men," Jerry Starr suggests, "Follow the money."
Starr, a longtime opponent to the sale or swap of WQEX, is calling presidential candidate John McCain's bid for campaign reform into question, in light of contributions from broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson, four of his immediate family members and a couple of his top executives. In March, each gave the maximum individual donation of $1,000 to McCain's presidential war chest.
There is nothing illegal about the contributions, and there is no evidence they came with strings attached.
Starr, a spokesman for the Save Pittsburgh Public TV campaign, said yesterday, "I have no direct evidence this is quid pro quo," meaning that the money was given in exchange for McCain's support of a $35 million deal that would eliminate WQEX, permit Christian broadcaster WPCB to assume its educational license and Channel 16 position, and allow Paxson Communications Corp. to buy Channel 40 for $35 million. Pittsburgh is the only top 20 television market without a Pax TV presence.
McCain, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, wrote letters to the five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission asking about the status of the sale in November and again this month. He did not suggest the commissioners OK the sale, and staffers have said he has been concerned about FCC backlogs for some time.
The FCC approved the deal last week, although the actual order spelling out dissent and any conditions has yet to be released.
Paxson, relatives and colleagues donated $9,000 to McCain, and the Washington, D.C., law firm of Dow, Lohnes & Albertson -- representing some of the parties in the $35 million deal -- donated another $6,858, according to election contribution records.
"I don't have any information on that," Pax TV spokeswoman Nancy David Udell said yesterday from West Palm Beach. "I do know Mr. Paxson makes contributions to both the Republican and Democratic parties."
In fact, Paxson Communications Management Co. donated $5,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Inc. about the same time that dollars were directed to McCain.
The Arizona Republican has raised at least $9 million, while his rival George W. Bush has amassed $58 million.
Dan Schnur, communications director for the McCain campaign, said accepting a political contribution is not against the law.
"What is illegal is taking a specific action in exchange for that contribution, and there's no evidence John McCain has done such a thing. In order for there to be a quid pro quo, there has to be a quid and John McCain took no position with the FCC on whether they should accept or deny the petition."
Schnur said seven other members of Congress wrote to the FCC on the matter, six advocating a particular position on the case and only one other who, like McCain, did not take a stand. Rep. Ron Klink of Murrysville, Rep. Frank Mascara of Charleroi, and Sens. Rick Santorum and Arlen Specter endorsed the sale, while Rep. William J. Coyne of Oakland called for a public hearing on the matter.
Starr, however, argues, "These actions reflect an environment in which media property holders can afford to pay big bucks for powerful lobbying firms like Patton Boggs (hired by WQED) and make large contributions to the campaigns of powerful politicians like Sen. McCain, while community groups have no such resources and must rely on appeals to the public interest."