(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)

During the first presidential debate, John McCain ripped into Barack Obama for requesting millions in “earmark pork-barrel spending.” Then he gave a high-profile shout-out: “I suggest that people go up on the Web site of Citizens Against Government Waste, and they’ll look at those projects.”

Citizens Against Government Waste said its Web site traffic shot up to 10 times its usual after McCain’s comment, and it quickly returned the favor. The group’s political action committee is calling McCain a “taxpayer hero” in TV ads airing over the next two weeks in Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The group has never produced TV ads for a presidential candidate before.

The ad says, “In 25 years, McCain never requested a single pork barrel spending project. … Barack Obama? $740 million in special interest earmarks in just 3 years.” It’s a small buy, but the group says it will reach an estimated 930,000 adults.

Click here to watch the ad.

CAGW gives “taxpayer hero” status to lawmakers who vote with its position at least 80 percent of the time. “Taxpayer superheroes” are those who vote with it 100 percent of the time. For 2007, according to CAGW, McCain got a perfect score, but was “only present for 11 of the 35 Senate votes” at issue, so therefore was “not eligible for the Taxpayer Super Hero Award.” McCain has a lifetime rating of 88 percent. Obama is at 22 percent.

McCain and the nonprofit have other ties as well. A Washington Post investigation details the connections, including a CAGW board member — a Vietnam War POW with McCain — who volunteered for McCain’s campaign. The Post reported that the group recently came to McCain’s aid on a controversial policy issue.

Citizens Against Government Waste has been one of the most cited authorities on earmark abuse. It’s also been the subject of some criticism. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the organization “has traded on its watchdog reputation by taking money from companies and trade associations and then conducted lobbying and public relations campaigns on their behalf.” In its investigation of corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the Democratic staff of the Senate Finance Committee issued a 2006 report that found “a pattern of CAGW producing public relations materials favorable to Mr. Abramoff’s clients.” CAGW denied it.

McCain, though, has been a steadfast supporter. Over the years, he helped CAGW release its list of earmarks, the Congressional Pig Book. This past April, McCain put out a press release commending the latest Pig Book. “Once again,” he said, “My friends at CAGW have done a great job of compiling a comprehensive list of unnecessary and wasteful pork barrel projects. By shedding light on these egregious projects, they are helping to make Congress more accountable to the American people.”

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