Mid-November 2000 was a time when hardcore Republicans rushed south to fight the battle of Florida and win the presidency for George W. Bush. But that old maverick, John McCain, wandered in a different direction. Having lost a bitter primary fight to Bush, McCain and his wife Cindy headed north from their home in Sedona, Arizona, for some gambling and relaxing in Las Vegas.
McCain had heard that a young friend who shared his love of the gaming tables—Rudy Giuliani’s then chief of staff, Tony Carbonetti—was in Las Vegas that week with his fiancée, Carol Dorrian. McCain asked his then top adviser, John Weaver, for Carbonetti’s cell-phone number.
“John knew Tony and Carol were in Las Vegas, and he called me looking for their number,” Weaver recalled last week. “So, I called Tony to make sure they were in Vegas and to give him a heads-up that the senator would be calling.”
Weaver added that the Arizona senator knew Carbonetti from that first presidential campaign when Giuliani was a strong McCain backer. McCain became fond of Carbonetti, who is a big, fun-loving jock and is clever enough inside a casino to have once listed $30,000 in gambling winnings on his city financial-disclosure forms.
Weaver’s recollection confirms part of a story that appears on a new blog called RudyVeritas.com. The site is the work of Russell Harding, an ex–Giuliani aide who spent more than four years in prison for embezzling $400,000 from the city and possessing child pornography.
Harding acknowledges he’s got an ax to grind. He writes on his website that Carbonetti ignored a plea for help when he was getting out of prison, and later brushed past him on a chance encounter in Grand Central Station. Hence the blog, which lobs a variety of would-be grenades into Rudyland.
One of them is how the former city-housing aide used city funds to pay part of the tab for McCain’s get-away-from-it-all trip to Las Vegas that fall. And while McCain’s name isn’t mentioned, expense records from Harding’s life of crime show that his freewheeling spending in Las Vegas that week matches his current claims. And another source with knowledge of the trip confirms that McCain was there playing the tables as Harding and Carbonetti cheered him on.
Harding writes that he was strolling the Las Vegas strip with Carbonetti and Dorrian when Weaver’s call came. The trip was supposed to be a visit to a computer trade show. Harding now acknowledges it was “a junket, no two ways about that.” He says he heard Carbonetti tell Weaver: “Tell him to come over. Bring Cindy. I’ll take care of everything at the Bellagio.”
Harding says he then booked McCain’s room reservation at the Bellagio with his own city credit card. Once the McCains arrived, he writes, he watched as the senator shot craps, took in a performance of Siegfried & Roy, and enjoyed a long, leisurely dinner with the New Yorkers at a posh steakhouse at the Bellagio, where both the McCains and Carbonetti and his girlfriend stayed during the trip.
He says he didn’t end up having to pay the McCains’ room charges, because the casino comped Carbonetti in reward for his heavy gambling. “I believe McCain’s charges were on that bill,” the blog states.
Harding writes that he found it “odd” that McCain “never seemed concerned about who or how this was all being payed [sic] for. I mean his room, meals, and sundries. Tony’s room and the McCain suite were being paid for with my HDC credit card. It was only because of Tony’s gambling that the Bellagio ended up comping his $5,000 hotel bill.”
Harding got his job as president of the city’s Housing Development Corporation because he was the son of Ray Harding, boss of the old Liberal Party and Giuliani’s political mentor. As such, he is well aware of the toxic potential that his tale holds: “I worked in the Senate,” he writes. “There are rules about accepting such things.”
Indeed there are, and John McCain helped make them.
In a reform that McCain fought to win, senators are barred from taking a free meal, an outing, or anything else worth more than $50. McCain’s push for the 1995 rules change helped shape his reputation as a reformer as he fought his way back from a shameful Senate ethics scandal that exposed his dealings with an Arizona supporter, convicted savings-and-loan schemer Charles Keating Jr. McCain vacationed in the Bahamas with Keating and didn’t reimburse him until years later, when the scandal hit. McCain also went to bat for Keating with federal regulators who were probing his troubled banks.
Whatever the circumstances of the Vegas trip, no one wanted to discuss it last week. McCain’s campaign ducked detailed requests for comment. Carbonetti likewise refused to be interviewed. As for the Bellagio, casinos in Las Vegas don’t have to report it when they comp a high-roller. McCain’s Senate financial-disclosure forms certainly make no mention of any such gifts.
Harding, who is currently living in Westchester County, according to court records, also didn’t respond to Voice inquiries. But that’s not a surprise. It was a series of articles here in 2002 that led to his indictment and a five-year prison term after he pled guilty.
The expense records that became the basis of those stories were obtained by the Voice after a long Freedom of Information battle. Harding, who won his patronage plum from Giuliani in 1998 to head the housing agency, had lawyers there claim for over a year that his records were lost. After he left the agency, new officials released them. They show that Harding had a wild fling that week, spending some $13,000 of his agency’s dough. He shelled out $936 for a helicopter ride, and splurged $7,000 at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he and another official from his housing agency stayed. The records show that he was in Las Vegas from at least November 12, 2000, and spent $424 on a room reservation at the Bellagio on November 16, around the time that the McCains would have gotten to town. The room payment was later credited back to Harding’s city credit card.
There is also a $2,826 Bellagio charge that Harding listed on his expenses as a “room reservation” for the trade show. The charge was made on November 18, which would have been around the time that, according to the blog, Harding, Carbonetti, Dorrian, and the McCains enjoyed a long dinner at the Prime Steakhouse—which is in the Bellagio. Harding describes McCain, over “apéritifs,” musing over the fiasco then unfolding in Florida.
One source familiar with the trip, who asked not to be identified, confirms that McCain was with Carbonetti, Dorrian, and Harding at the tables in the Bellagio casino. The source confirms one of the blog’s contentions, that McCain considered Dorrian to be a kind of good-luck charm, and wanted her to toss the dice herself. “McCain wanted Carol Dorrian to throw the dice,” the source said. “He was convinced she was lucky.”
Weaver, who put McCain and Carbonetti in touch, said he has no idea what happened once McCain got to Las Vegas. “I know that John and Cindy went out there, but I have a hard time believing everything Russell Harding says. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, either. I just don’t know. I wasn’t there.”