Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., went on the Senate floor last week to defend the University of Phoenix and excoriate the Defense Department for placing the country’s largest for-profit university on probation.

In his Oct. 28 floor speech, McCain singled out Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., for leading the charge against the university for its recruiting practices, disclosed by Reveal in June.

“It’s being orchestrated and carried out by the senator from Illinois, who has a well-known record of not supporting the members of the men and women who are serving in the military,” McCain said.

But some veterans groups say McCain’s own record of supporting veterans is spotty, despite his national acclaim as a Vietnam War hero. McCain, a Navy fighter pilot, spent more than five years as a prisoner of war – a narrative that has propelled his long career in politics.

In 2008, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a New York-based group, gave McCain a “D” in its performance report card.

“Now every American can find out who in Washington really supports Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and who is just full of hot air,” the group’s founder and CEO, Paul Rieckhoff, said at the time.

McCain’s grade reflected his votes – or lack of voting – on veterans issues, including the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the most comprehensive education benefit for veterans since World War II. It provides veterans who have served for at least three years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with free education at public colleges and universities for four years, as well as money for housing and books.

McCain was running for president at the time. He said he could not support the bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., a fellow Vietnam veteran, because it was overly generous and would dissuade people from remaining in the military.

He and other Republicans offered their own version of the bill, which would have required longer military service before some key benefits could kick in.

Webb’s bill passed 75-22, but McCain was a no-show for the Senate vote. Despite having his own reservations, President George W. Bush signed the legislation into law.

McCain’s office did not respond to questions about the 2008 GI Bill this week. Instead, a spokeswoman provided a long list of veterans groups that have honored and praised the senator.

“Virtually every veterans organization in America has recognized and honored Senator McCain’s decades-long record of fighting for his fellow veterans, and it’s unfortunate that anyone would seek to disparage that extensive, clear record,” Julie Tarallo said in an email.

“In the last year alone, Senator McCain has co-authored landmark legislation that made some of the most significant reforms to the VA in decades, and wrote an important bipartisan bill – now signed into law by President Obama – to reform and strengthen veterans suicide prevention programs at the Department of Defense and the VA.”

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America issued McCain a “D” grade again in 2010, giving him low marks for his opposition to what has been dubbed GI Bill 2.0, which expanded the 2008 legislation to cover members of the National Guard and military reserves. It also expanded benefits to vocational and on-the-job training programs.

David Lucier, president of the Arizona Veterans and Military Leadership Alliance, remembered being surprised by McCain’s lack of support for the two GI bills.

“With him being a veteran and a POW – who’s been doing very, very well after his uniform service – he could have a little more empathy for other veterans,” said Lucier, a registered Democrat. “Everybody needs a good education and a good job so they can thrive.”

He characterized University of Phoenix recruiters as “hard-core car salesmen” who “were going to make a sale no matter what.”

The Defense Department put the University of Phoenix on probation after a Reveal investigation uncovered the for-profit school’s aggressive recruitment of veterans. Credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/Reveal Credit: Adithya Sambamurthy/Reveal

Reveal’s investigation showed how the university paid the military for exclusive access to bases – violating the intent of an executive order by President Barack Obama – held recruitment events disguised as résumé workshops and handed out “challenge coins” engraved with military insignias, without the required permission.

This isn’t the first time McCain’s record on veterans has come under scrutiny. Amid the controversy over the GI Bill in 2008, PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site run by the Tampa Bay Times, assessed the Arizona senator’s pronouncements that he had a “perfect voting record” from veterans service groups. PolitiFact rated his claim “false.”

PolitiFact returned to McCain’s record in July after GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump asserted that McCain was not a war hero and later said that the senator had “done nothing to help the vets.” In that case, PolitiFact said Trump’s assertion was “false.”

“While many veterans’ groups have had their differences with McCain over the years over specific legislation and his general approach to veterans’ issues, that’s not the same as saying he’s done ‘nothing’ for veterans,” the site reported.

Nevertheless, Christopher Neiweem, an Iraq War veteran and a former legislative associate for a veterans group, said the senator is doing a disservice to veterans now by defending the for-profit college.

Neiweem said he once worked as a recruiter for DeVry University, another for-profit school, and was tasked with signing up fellow veterans.

“Sen. McCain should be learning about for-profit issues from people who have worked in the industry, instead of defending the industry without doing substantive research into issues and problems that have been reported,” he said.

“It concerns me that Sen. McCain has been ignoring the smoke signals that have been coming from this sector for years,” he said.

John Murphy, one of the founders of the University of Phoenix, said that in the early years, the school encountered pushback from much of Arizona’s power elites, including McCain.

“He would never meet with us. He wouldn’t have anything to do with us,” said Murphy, who handled government affairs and accreditation for the school.

“McCain was hostile to the University of Phoenix for years, so I find it interesting now that he’s defending them,” he said. “I’m not sure where that came from. The politics has changed obviously. I don’t know at what point he changed his opinion and why.”

Murphy left the university in 1997, he said, because of philosophical disagreements over the direction of the school, including its increased push for federal funds through recruiting veterans and military personnel. McCain’s spokeswoman declined to respond to Murphy’s recollections.

It’s not unusual, of course, for elected officials to aid businesses within their communities, particularly while wooing constituents in an election year. Currently McCain is campaigning for a sixth term in the U.S. Senate.

At least two fellow Republicans have launched bids to oust him, including state Sen. Kelli Ward and Tea Party member Alex Meluskey.

With a full year before the 2016 election, it’s unclear what role the University of Phoenix or its parent company, Apollo Education Group, will play in the contest.

So far, U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick of Flagstaff is the only Democrat to have announced a bid for his seat and has already won her party’s endorsement. In 2014, she received $7,700 from donors associated with the University of Phoenix, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Over the years, according to the center’s data, McCain has received $8,725 from Apollo and its employees, including $5,000 in 2004 and $2,000 in 2010 – both coinciding with McCain’s previous re-election campaigns.

Since 1990, the college and its employees together have contributed nearly $270,000 to federal political campaigns. Apollo and associated individuals have donated more than $3.7 million during that same time period.

With its fortunes falling (Apollo’s stock prices have plunged drastically) and its business model of relying on federal education funds now under intense scrutiny, the company has ramped up its political activities and lobbying.

As scrutiny has intensified, so has the group’s advocacy for itself in the nation’s capital. So far this year, Apollo has spent more than $1 million on lobbying efforts in Washington. Since 1998, the company has spent more than $11.5 million to make its case in Washington.

Veterans groups are countering with their own lobbying.

“We want them to protect GI Bill benefits and protect veterans and members of the military against predatory schools,” said Matthew Miller, chief policy officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“The issue itself is an important issue to discuss,” he said, “but we would hope it would be done in a bipartisan manner.”

Because McCain chairs the powerful Senate Committee on Armed Services, military officials and leaders of some veterans organizations are reluctant to openly criticize the Arizona senator.

But some veterans groups expressed disappointment over McCain’s outspoken defense of the University of Phoenix in the face of widespread concern about the millions of dollars the school receives each year from the Pentagon’s tuition assistance program and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ GI Bill.

Last week’s exchange was part of an ongoing war of words between two Senate heavyweights over not just the University of Phoenix, but for-profit schools and how best to spend funds from the GI Bill and other federal education programs on behalf of military veterans and active duty personnel.

A day after McCain’s personal swipe, Sen. Dick Durbin fired back with a floor speech of his own, defending the military’s action against the university and repeating his call for increased scrutiny of for-profit schools.

“I hope that my friend and colleague from Arizona, who has made a record in the Senate speaking up, standing up to avoid those misuses of federal funds, will continue in that same vein when it comes to this issue,” Durbin said.

Bobby Caina Calvan

Bobby Caina Calvan is the collaborations editor for Reveal. He was most recently director of operations for The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based nonprofit that awards grants to freelance and independent investigative journalists. He thrives on watchdog journalism. He's worked in some of the country's best newsrooms, including The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee and the Detroit Free Press. He's covered the war in Iraq, the national debate over health care, the 2012 presidential race and other high-profile elections.

While Calvan has worked in some of the country's biggest news outlets, his roots are firmly in local news. His career transcends platforms, and he has produced stories for print, digital, radio and television. He spent a year on a journalism diversity initiative in Nebraska called The Heartland Project, where he spearheaded collaborations with newsrooms across the state to enhance coverage of communities of color and LGBT issues. Inclusive journalism is in his DNA, and so is his strong advocacy for mentoring the next generation of journalists.

Calvan grew up on a dairy farm at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Waimanalo, Hawaii – which might explain why he spent his first year of college at New York University and followed his sense of adventure into a career in journalism. He completed his college career at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in legal studies. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.