Wife's Fortune, Connections Boost McCain

Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., celebrates with his wife Cindy, his primary victory in Miami, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008. AP

On a spring day at a speedway in the South, John McCain posed with his wife, Cindy, and racing star Dale Earnhardt Jr., highlighting the couple's political and business interests in a single snapshot.

McCain served as honorary starter of the NASCAR race that weekend in Charlotte, N.C. Earnhardt drove the Budweiser car, painted military camouflage, rather than its trademark red, to honor the troops.

Budweiser, then NASCAR's official beer, is brewed by Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., whose products have made Cindy McCain and her family a fortune.

The brewer sold toy replicas of its race car to aid the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and publicized its support for the group, on whose board John McCain served and whose chairman later endorsed him. The speedway appearance helped McCain court NASCAR voters, and his campaign circulated video of the event over the Internet.

The McCains' marriage has mixed business and politics from the beginning, according to an expansive review by The Associated Press of thousands of pages of campaign, personal finance, real estate and property records nationwide. The paperwork chronicles the McCains' ascent from Arizona newlyweds to political power couple on the national stage.

As heiress to her father's stake in Hensley & Co. of Phoenix, Cindy McCain is an executive whose worth may exceed $100 million. Her beer earnings have afforded the GOP presidential nominee a wealthy lifestyle with a private jet and vacation homes at his disposal, and her connections helped him launch his political career - even if the millions remain in her name alone. Yet the arm's-length distance between McCain and his wife's assets also has helped shield him from conflict-of-interest problems.

Nearly 30 years before John McCain became the Republican presidential nominee, he worked in public relations at his wife's family company.

Within a few years of marrying Cindy Hensley, the daughter of a multimillionaire Anheuser-Busch distributor, John McCain won his first election. He was new to Arizona politics and fundraising in the 1982 House race, and his campaign quickly fell into debt. Personal money - tens of thousands of dollars in loans to his campaign from McCain bank accounts - helped him survive.

Anheuser-Busch's political action committee was among McCain's earliest donors. Cindy McCain's father, James Hensley, and other Hensley & Co. executives gave so much the Federal Election Commission ordered McCain to give some of it back. McCain's campaign used Hensley office equipment such as computers and copiers, and Cindy McCain personally paid some of the campaign's bills.

The campaign gradually reimbursed Hensley for use of its equipment and Cindy McCain for her expenses. The loans - described initially by John McCain as coming from him and his wife - caught the eye of the FEC, which repeatedly questioned him about them; spouses are held to the same donation limits as everyone else.

McCain told the FEC the loaned money came from his share of joint accounts. At the time, McCain reported drawing a $25,067 salary and $25,000 bonus working for Hensley in public relations and receiving a Navy pension of $11,038 a year; his 1982 financial disclosure report showed bank interest but didn't say how much the bank accounts held.

McCain's campaign debt grew to about $177,000 by the end of 1982. His 1984 House campaign repaid just under half the loans. McCain forgave about $93,000 in loans, a sizable personal donation to his inaugural campaign.

McCain's fundraising base is now far broader than his family bank accounts and Hensley. Still, Hensley and Anheuser-Busch executives have been important and longtime supporters. Long before McCain became a sought-after speaker on the national stage, he gave several speeches at Anheuser-Busch's invitation in the 1980s and donated his fees to charity.

Hensley executives are among the Arizona senator's top career givers. The Anheuser-Busch PAC has given McCain's campaigns at least $19,500 over the years. McCain's campaign fundraisers include Robert Delgado, Hensley's president and chief executive officer; Andrew McCain, the company's chief financial officer and John McCain's stepson from his first marriage, to Carol Shepp; and August Busch III, chairman of Anheuser-Busch's executive committee. Anheuser-Busch in 2006 gave $25,000 to the International Republican Institute, a pro-democracy group chaired by McCain.

McCain's campaign still taps Hensley assets: His presidential campaign paid at least $227,000 last year to a limited liability company in which his wife and children are invested, King Aviation, for use of its private jet, according to campaign finance reports.

Although Cindy McCain's business connections have benefited John McCain politically, they appear to have had little impact on his personal fortunes.

McCain is routinely ranked among the richest senators. But a prenuptial agreement has kept most assets in his wife's name. That arrangement served as a defense for McCain when the Senate ethics committee scrutinized a real estate deal involving his wife, her father and disgraced savings and loan owner Charles Keating Jr. McCain said at the time the separation of assets helped prove the deal didn't benefit him.

McCain himself reports little more wealth than when he started in politics. With his book royalties and radio-appearance fees donated to charity, McCain's Senate salary of $169,300 and Navy pension of about $56,000 are his only significant sources of income. He has accounts at two banks with his wife worth up to $15,000 each, according to his most recent financial disclosure report.

In contrast, Cindy McCain is a millionaire many times over - though the McCains haven't disclosed just how many times.

In government records, McCain is permitted to describe his wife's salary at Hensley as simply "more than $1,000" and, when listing her major assets, say only that they are worth "more than $1 million."

The reports show Cindy McCain has at least $9 million in assets on her own and at least $15 million with the McCain children. But those figures are virtually meaningless; her stake in Hensley & Co. alone almost certainly exceeds them by tens of millions of dollars.

Beverage industry analysts estimate Hensley's value at more than $250 million and its annual sales at $300 million or more. Hensley describes itself as the third-largest Anheuser-Bush wholesaler in the United States. It sold more than 23 million cases of beer last year and is among the nation's biggest beer distributors regardless of brand.

Still, don't expect Budweiser to be the beverage of choice at the White House if McCain is elected. "Senator McCain very rarely, if ever, drinks alcohol," campaign spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said.
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