WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain helped the Del Webb Corp. buy valuable time in 1994 to strategize land deals in booming Clark County, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

As the home-state company was eyeing development opportunities in the Las Vegas Valley whose population almost doubled during the decade, the Arizona senator secretly blocked a bill that would greatly increase the size of the protected Red Rock National Conservation Area.

Del Webb was being frustrated in trying to get a 4,000-acre portion that it wanted in a trade excluded from the Red Rock bill. It turned to McCain for help, according to the center's research.

In 1994, it was a mystery to the public which senator was holding up the expanded protections for Red Rock. The delay gave Del Webb time and leverage to pursue a backup deal, according to the center.

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism group, described McCain's involvement in the Red Rock bill in a book it published in 2000 called "The Buying of the President 2000."

Now, new attention is being drawn to McCain's action affecting Nevada in the context of reports in the New York Times last month and Washington Post on Friday describing the Republican presidential candidate's sponsorships of federal transactions that benefited wealthy supporters.

The Center for Public Integrity reprinted its reporting on its Web site Friday, calling it "McCain's land swap deja vu."

Del Webb had given McCain $56,535 in campaign contributions at the time lobbyist Don Moon asked the senator for help in Nevada, according to the center.

With the Red Rock bill successfully on hold, Del Webb tried to move to the front of the line for other possible land swaps in Southern Nevada, according to the report.

Moon got Nevada's congressional delegation to sign a letter supporting a new Del Webb proposal to exchange 4,700 acres south of Las Vegas.

"Once Moon had the letter in hand, McCain lifted his hold," the center reported, and the bill to expand Red Rock passed the Senate intact. It expanded the conservation area on the western edge of the city from 83,100 acres to 176,500 acres.

Through subsequent land exchanges and purchases, Del Webb went on to obtain the property near Henderson from the Bureau of Land Management that it eventually developed into Sun City Anthem.

There was a postscript. As Las Vegas boomed in the 1990s, federal audits concluded that millions of dollars were being lost on land exchanges between the BLM and private developers like Del Webb.

Auditors said the BLM was accepting low appraisals that helped the developers but hurt taxpayers.

The practice of the government trading land with developers was sharply curtailed when Congress in 1998 passed the Southern Nevada Public Land Management Act that set new controls on land sales in the valley.

STEVE TETREAULT/REVIEW-JOURNAL Stephens Washington Bureau writer Tony Batt contributed to this report.