Cindy McCain Rewrites Her History of Opioid Abuse in New Memoir

Cindy McCain stole prescription painkillers en masse from the medical nonprofit she founded.(hjl via Flickr)
In Cindy McCain's new memoir, the beer heiress prevaricates about an array of subjects, including her pill-pilfering past, her dad's mob ties and the Super Bowl-sex trafficking hoax.

Unless you’ve been languishing in a vegetative state for the past week, you’ve likely seen Cindy McCain pimping her new memoir, Stronger: Courage, Hope and Humor in My Life with John McCain, in interviews with such outlets as The Washington Post, People magazine, MSNBC’s Morning Joe andThe View (which her daughter Meghan co-hosts) to name a few.

The mainstream media’s response to this PR campaign has been unabashed reverence. NPR praised her “reservoir of strength.” MSNBC’s Brian Williams gushed about her late husband’s “tireless fight for civility in our politics.” WaPo opinion columnist Karen Tumulty titled her piece about the memoir, “Cindy McCain and the torment of perfection.”

Cindy McCain attempts a rewrite of her personal history in her new memoir. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Such slavish adoration could not come at a more advantageous moment for the 66-year-old former rodeo queen, as the Biden administration is reportedly preparing to nominate her to be the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. World Food Programme in Rome, despite her dearth of experience.

Talking heads like CNN’s Jake Tapper have asked Cindy about a possible position in the new administration, as a reward for endorsing Biden in 2020. She told Tapper that “in whatever way [President Biden] sees fit, I will be proud and honored to serve.

And yet, Cindy McCain’s memoir makes for an unreliable resume. The book glosses over the Keating Five scandal, downplays her criminal theft of opioids from a nonprofit she established in the 1990s and regurgitates a much-debunked myth about the Super Bowl being a magnet for sex trafficking — one the widow McCain must know is hogwash.

So, as a public service, Front Page Confidential offers the following run-down of the book’s most misleading passages, which should give people pause about Cindy holding even the most picayune of public offices in the Biden administration.

I. Mother’s Little Helpers

Cindy McCain paints her battle with addiction in a sympathetic light, minimizing the fact that in the 1990s she swiped Vicodin and Percocet in vast quantities from the American Voluntary Medical Team (AVMT), a non-profit she founded to administer medical assistance in war-torn and disaster-plagued parts of the world.

“The medical supplies we had for distribution included prescription drugs, and I found a way to take some for myself,” she writes. “I won’t try to offer any excuses or explanations. It was wrong.”

But she never comes clean about how she “found a way to take some” for herself.

Instead, she blames a “vengeful former employee” for ratting her out to the Drug Enforcement Administration, suggesting this is why the story became public.

Cindy McCain had AVMT doctors write scripts for Vicodin and Percocet in the names of her employees. Prosecutors cut her a sweetheart deal. The whistleblower lost his job, and one doctor had to give up his license to practice.

The former employee was Tom Gosinski, who served as director of government and international affairs at AVMT from 1991 to 1993. Gosinski kept a diary of his time there, portions of which were later published by the Phoenix New Times (PNT) in a 1994 investigative report, “Opiate for the Mrs.

That report details how Cindy used AVMT doctors to obtain “large acquisitions” of opioids, sometimes in the name of Gosinski and other AVMT employees. One doctor lost his license to practice medicine as a result.

Black-and-white head shot of Jim Hensley, father of Cindy McCain
Cindy McCain’s father, bootlegger-turned-booze-tycoon Jim Hensley (via Wikimedia Commons)

Cindy fired Gosinski in 1993, telling him it was due to a budget shortfall. But Gosinski said he believed it was because he had been complaining to other AVMT staffers about her funny business with prescriptions, fearing Cindy’s addiction would be the end of AVMT. (Indeed, AVMT folded in 1995.)

The article states that Gosinski went to the DEA about a month after being axed. He asked: If an individual suspects prescriptions are being illicitly written in his or her name, what’s that person’s responsibility? Told there would be a duty to report, Gosinski began cooperating with the DEA.

Gosinski later sued Cindy McCain for wrongful termination but did not include messy details about the opioid thefts in his complaint. When Gosinki’s lawyer attempted a settlement, John and Cindy retaliated by means of their attorney, who got a local county attorney to investigate Gosinski for extortion.

Though the investigation (like the suit) ultimately flamed out, the investigative report was public record, and the Phoenix New Times asked for it. But before the report was released, the McCain PR machine went into overdrive, presenting Cindy to friendly journalists who wrote of her brave battle with addiction.

As the PNT story points out, had Cindy’s attorney not demanded the extortion investigation, “accounts of her pill-popping likely would have remained on the cocktail circuit.”

If convicted on drug charges, Cindy could have caught a 20-year sentence. Instead, she was allowed to enter a pretrial diversion program, avoiding prosecution altogether.

John and Cindy retaliated against the ex-AVMT staffer who dropped dime on her; their attorney prevailed upon a county prosecutor to launch a criminal probe of the man. Ironically, the resulting investigative report made Cindy’s opioid thievery a public affair.

In 2008, The Washington Post re-examined Cindy’s “tangled story of addiction” and noted inconsistencies in her tale, such as her claim that in 1989 she “had ruptured a couple of disks carrying my 1-year-old, Bridget, in a pack on my back.”

WaPo observed that Bridget wasn’t born till 1991.

Weirdly, in the memoir, Cindy repeats this same story, but without Bridget’s name. She writes that she “blew out” two discs “walking around with the baby in a back carrier” and that the resulting back surgery got her hooked on opioids. She also mentions a hysterectomy and pressure from the Keating Five hearings in the Senate as being factors in her addiction.

II. The Keating Five

Cindy claims that the press unfairly labeled Sen. McCain a “villain” for his involvement in the so-called Keating Five scandal, in which five U.S. Senators, including McCain, intervened with regulators on behalf of the ’80s real-estate swindler, Charles Keating.

Keating was using a California financial institution that he owned, Lincoln Savings and Loan, as his personal ATM, bleeding it dry and selling junk bonds to the senior citizens who parked their money there.

President Biden is considering appointing Cindy McCain to be ambassador to the U.N. World Food Program, despite her lack of experience. (jlhervàs via Flickr)

A major political donor, Keating had raised $1.4 million for the senators involved, with Sen. McCain accepting $112,000 in donations tied to Keating. But McCain had other issues involving Keating. The Arizona senator took nine flights on the con man’s corporate jets and helicopters. Three of the trips were to Keating’s vacation home in the Bahamas, with Cindy, daughter Meghan and a nanny in tow.

Cindy writes, “John always played by the rules, so we had paid Keating back for the flights. I knew we had done so, but I couldn’t find the canceled checks that would prove it.”

Sen. McCain eventually ponied up more than $13,000 for flights that he had not reimbursed Keating for, but as the Arizona Republic reported in 2007, this was not until “years after” the flights in question, once Keating was under scrutiny.

Curiously, Cindy claims that years later she found the canceled checks “in a closet in our house in Washington,” but “by then it was too late.” She faults herself for not keeping the records straight.

But she leaves out an important detail, which Front Page Confidential mentioned in its 2018 ebook, The Stains of John McCain:

“Keating also did business with McCain’s family. In 1986, Cindy McCain and her dad plunked $359,100 into a shopping center that [Keating’s investment firm] was developing in North Phoenix. (They reportedly didn’t cash out until 1998, when the shopping center was sold.)”

Cindy was ticked that Palin never reached out to McCain on his deathbed, but after he expressed “regret” at picking her to be his Veep, why would she? (Tom LeGro, PBS NewsHour via Flickr)

The senator’s close ties, financial and otherwise, with the Bernie Madoff of the Reagan-Bush era earned John McCain the reputation as “the most reprehensible of the Keating Five,” in the words of then-Phoenix New Times columnist Tom Fitzpatrick.

The feds seized Lincoln in 1989. Cost to taxpayers? $3.4 billion. Keating did four-and-a-half years in prison for fraud and other charges, dying in Phoenix at age 90.

After an investigation and hearings, the Senate Ethics Committee dinged McCain for “poor judgment.” Since his flights aboard Keating’s aircraft occurred while he was a member of the House, he escaped sanction for not reporting them.

Cindy’s dad, Jim Hensley, was a convicted bootlegger, with ties to one of the most notorious underworld figures in Arizona history, Kemper Marley, the man many believe was behind the 1976 assassination of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.

Cindy is annoyed that the Keating Five scandal became “a symbol” for the wider S&L crisis of the late ’80s. She also bemoans the fact that a photo of her husband partying in the Bahamas as Keating’s guest got so much play in the press.

But McCain himself admitted to the “appearance of impropriety,” and others, such as the regulators themselves, argue that there was more than just an “appearance” of wrongdoing involved.

III. Dad the Bootlegger

One estimate of Cindy’s net worth pegs it at $400 million, the source of which is Hensley Beverage Company, one of the largest Budweiser distributorships in the nation, founded in 1955 by Cindy’s dad, Jim Hensley.

screenshot of the top-left portion of the front page of the September 19, 1990, edition of the New York Times, showing Charles Keating being led to jail in chains. Also pictured on the page is exiled Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Front-page news in 1990: Charles Keating indicted for fraud (screenshot via New York Times)

In the memoir, Cindy presents her father, a WWII vet, as a self-made man, who “put up everything he owned and borrowed $10,000” to buy a “small beer distributorship” that he built into “the largest beer distributor in the country.”

Cindy adds, “My mom later told me that there were times when the mob tried to roll in — but they never touched our family business.”

True, her father went legit in ’55,  but he was also a convicted bootlegger, with ties to one of the most notorious underworld figures in Arizona history, Kemper Marley, the man many believe was behind the 1976 assassination of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.

In 2000, Phoenix New Times dished the dirt on Cindy’s dad in the cover story, “Haunted By Spirits.” Quoting court records from 1948, the piece reports that Jim Hensley and his brother Eugene were convicted in federal court on multiple counts of filing false liquor records in an attempt to hide “illegal black market sales” from two liquor distributorships they owned.

Cindy blames Sarah Palin for Sen. McCain’s embarrassing loss to Barack Obama in 2008, but it’s not like someone put an Uzi to McCain’s head and forced him to pick Caribou Barbie as his running mate.

Marley was listed as the “vice president” of the two businesses, though prosecutors alleged that despite the title, Marley controlled the companies.

The Hensley boys also owned a race track in New Mexico, though Jim sold his share in 1955. PNT’s exposé quotes old stories from the Albuquerque Journal , stating that Marley was reputed to be a “financial backer” for bookies and that he “owned a wire service” that had formerly “operated in connection with . . . the Al Capone gang.”

John McCain divorced his first wife in 1980, married Cindy and moved to Phoenix to begin his political future. He worked for Cindy’s father doing PR work until a congressional seat opened up in 1982, which he ran for and won. His wife’s wealth, through her father, offered crucial support for McCain’s career.

Hensley died in 2000 at age 80. According to Cindy, the Budweiser dealer had a Clydesdale at his funeral.

IV. Biden, Palin and the Super Bowl

There is zero evidence that Cindy McCain’s endorsement of Joe Biden flipped Arizona blue, but the media has embraced the idea, lauding her for crossing party lines. She encourages this cockamamie conceit in her memoir.

In 2014, Cindy McCain called the Super Bowl “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet”; she continues to promote this harmful, much-debunked myth. (Metropolitan Transportation Authority via Flickr)

“A lot of Republicans knew the party had deserted its values, and I thought I could help Republican women feel comfortable supporting Joe,” she writes. “I was surprised by the amazing impact I had in Arizona and felt good when the state went for Biden.”

But as Cindy reminds us, Jill and Joe Biden are longtime friends of the McCains, and Trump and her husband shared a mutual enmity, which Trump continued to display even after the senator’s death. It’s hard to believe Cindy would ever support a man who spat on her spouse’s war record.

In addition to such misdirection, Mrs. McCain’s memoir is peppered with unsubtle, disingenuous attempts to rewrite her history and her husband’s.

For instance, Cindy blames Sarah Palin for Sen. McCain’s embarrassing loss to Barack Obama in 2008, but it’s not like someone put an Uzi to McCain’s head and forced him to pick Caribou Barbie as his running mate. Cindy also blasts Palin for not reaching out to John on his deathbed, but why would Palin want to hug the guy who said he regretted not selecting Joe Lieberman for his Veep nominee instead of her?

At times, Cindy demonstrates an almost Trumpian attachment to erroneous assertions, like her repetition of one of the most debunked factoids on the planet: that sex trafficking flourishes in Super Bowl host cities leading up to the big game.

“I confronted the National Football League in 2015 when the Super Bowl came to Phoenix, explaining that the game has become one of the biggest venues for human trafficking on the planet,”  she writes.

(Note:  Human trafficking is an umbrella term that includes both labor and sex trafficking, but Cindy’s focus is on sex trafficking, which she conflates with prostitution.)

Cindy’s been pushing that canard at least since 2014, when she dubbed the Super Bowl “the largest human-trafficking event on the planet.”

But as defense attorney Kate Mogulescu explained in a 2014 op-ed for The New York Times, there’s no data to back up this contention, which inevitably results in large-scale police busts of consensual adult sex workers, further endangering a marginal, at-risk community.

Mogulescu writes that the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, “a network of non-governmental organizations,” first threw water on this recurring moral panic in a 2011 report, “examining the record on sex trafficking related to World Cup soccer games, the Olympics and the Super Bowl.”

She quotes the GAATW report as stating that “despite massive media attention, law enforcement measures and efforts by prostitution abolitionist groups, there is no empirical evidence that trafficking for prostitution increases around large sporting events.”

This conclusion has been supported by a plethora of articles and studies over the years, published in Reason magazine, the Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated, and on and on. Eight years after GAATW’s analysis, an academic study published in the Anti-Trafficking Review similarly found that “empirical evidence does not suggest that major sporting events cause trafficking for sexual exploitation.”

Even a two-year study bankrolled by the McCain Institute at Arizona State University discovered “no evidence that the Super Bowl triggers a spike in commercial sex sales,” according to the Arizona Republic.

This pattern of disingenuousness has few if any consequences for a wealthy white woman, but it has enormous consequences for women of color and others pushed into the shadows by inflammatory rhetoric and false assumptions.

Consider an innocent mother and child, minding their own business in a Phoenix airport in 2019, when Cindy reported them to police as a trafficking incident in progress. She later said she knew something was amiss because the woman was “of a different ethnicity than the child.”

Mrs. McCain later appeared on a local radio show and informed the hosts, incorrectly, that the cops discovered the mom was trafficking the child and that a man had been flying into the airport to purchase the little one.

Phoenix police had to correct the record. There was no criminality afoot, no arrests made. To this day, Cindy’s bit about a man flying to Phoenix to buy a toddler remains unexplained.

Is this really the person the Biden administration wants to reward with a post dealing with an important issue like world hunger?

Apparently so.

ICYMI, please see:
McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum Welcomes Alleged “War Criminal” Henry Kissinger
and
Mangia Roma: Michael Lacey on Cindy McCain’s Roman Holiday

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About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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