Politics & Government

Top McCain adviser lobbied for nation of Georgia

WASHINGTON — John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randall Scheunemann, lobbied for the nation of Georgia for four years, including for about a year after he joined the Republican senator's presidential campaign staff in early 2007.

Georgia has paid Scheunemann's firm, Orion Strategies, LLC, nearly $900,000 since 2004, including $200,000 for an eight-month contract that began on May 1, two weeks after McCain issued a strong statement criticizing Russia and supporting Georgia.

Scheunemann took a leave from lobbying for Orion in March, two months before McCain barred active lobbyists from serving on his staff. He's still listed as Orion's president and owner.

Reached by phone, Scheunemann declined comment and referred a reporter to the campaign.

Asked about Scheunemann's lobbying connections, McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said that the Arizona senator's interest in Georgia "predated" his first visit to the republic in 1997. He said that McCain "has spoken for years about Russian policies that threaten the sovereignty of its neighbors, from Estonia to Ukraine to Georgia."

Bounds said that McCain returned to Georgia in 2002 to urge then-president Eduard Shevardnadze to conduct free and fair elections, and when those "badly flawed elections" led to a revolution, McCain became a strong supporter of newly elected President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Orion's filings with the Justice Department's Foreign Agents Registration Office indicate that Scheunemann and his partner, Mike Mitchell, had more than 40 phone conversations and meetings with McCain, his Senate chief of staff Mark Salter and his foreign policy aide Richard Fontaine, on behalf of Georgia, which is seeking membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The briefings picked up in the summer of 2006, when Scheunemann briefed McCain and his aides several times before McCain took another trip to Georgia, this time with Republican Sens. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida, Richard Burr of North Carolina and John Sununu of New Hampshire. Scheunemann joined them in Georgia, where they met with Saakashvili.

Saakashvili has been criticized for authoritarian tendencies following a crackdown on demonstrators last year, but McCain has been a staunch ally, sternly criticizing Moscow for its backing of pro-Russian, separatists.

On April 17 of this year, McCain issued a stern statement assailing "Russia's moves to undermine Georgian sovereignty." Two weeks later, Georgia gave Orion a $200,000 contract extension.

After Russian tanks rolled into the breakaway region of South Ossetia Friday amid fighting between Georgian troops and the separatist rebels, McCain called for an immediate Russian pullout and urged the Bush administration to request an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

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