Hayworth to McCain: If you bring up Abramoff, I will talk about Keating 5

J.D. Hayworth has a warning for John McCain: Bring up Jack Abramoff and I'll rehash the Keating Five scandal.

The former six-term congressman isn’t yet officially in the race but already the Arizona GOP Senate primary shows signs of turning into a bare-knuckle brawl.

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"If John McCain really wants to make this a campaign about ties to lobbyists we will very forcefully respond to his outrageous conduct and Bahamian vacations with convicted banker Charlie Keating,” said Jason Rose, a spokesman for Hayworth.

In the 1980s, federal auditors were investigating Keating's savings and loan bank when the Arizona developer asked McCain and a number of other senators to intervene. Keating and McCain were close and had taken several trips together. McCain, then in his first Senate term, attended two meetings with federal banking regulators to discuss the investigation. The Senate Ethics Committee later found him guilty of exercising "pour judgment," but nothing more.

Rose said the senator’s camp is already using Abramoff in a “whisper campaign” against Hayworth, a characterization a McCain spokesman scoffed at.

“This isn’t a whisper campaign,” said Brian Rogers, McCain’s communications director. “The people of Arizona made a judgment about J.D. Hayworth’s ethically questionable role in the Jack Abramoff scandal when they voted him out of office in 2006. By stark contrast, the people of Arizona have overwhelmingly re-elected John McCain on numerous occasions.”

As chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee in the 109th Congress, McCain investigated the Abramoff scandal. Hayworth was not mentioned in the panels' final report.

Hayworth is on the verge of retiring a large legal debt stemming from Abramoff-related probes. “It’s going through the final stages of being eliminated,” said Rose.

Before opting to take on McCain, Hayworth had called the debt a “ready-made campaign controversy” if he were to seek office again without having paid it off. He will officially enter the Senate race Feb. 15.
 
In 2006, Hayworth came under investigation by the Justice Department after it emerged he’d received a campaign contribution from the disgraced Washington lobbyist. He was never charged but amassed some $150,000 in legal fees defending himself.           

The debt lingered until late last year when he received significant contributions from several prominent Republicans, including Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas), who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Sessions, who also donated to Hayworth’s 2006 reelection effort, wasn’t endorsing his primary bid, a spokeswoman said.

“The donation was given with the sole intent of helping a former congressional colleague with his legal defense against baseless claims,” said Emily Davis, a spokeswoman for Sessions. “The donation cannot and does not have any connection to political funds.”

Hayworth received the donations through his trust, called Freedom In Truth, and has no direct control over how the money is spent, according to Rose.

Sessions’ campaign finance filing shows the $2,500 donation was given on Oct. 7, 2009 -- two days after reports surfaced that Hayworth would challenge McCain.

Still, Davis insists there’s nothing to the timing of the donation.

“The timing of it would certainly not have anything to do with any other races," she said. “It was before any primary discussion or announcement."

Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) also donated to Hayworth’s trust. “A lot of people felt J.D. was wronged by the investigation,” Rose said. The entire GOP congressional delegation from Arizona has endorsed McCain. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is backing Hayworth.