January 29, 2006
Ney earned bipartisan respect as GOP soldier
By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON - Until he became linked to a widening corruption scandal on Capitol Hill, Rep. Bob Ney was a rising star in Congress.
He was the first member of his freshman class of lawmakers, elected in 1994, to ascend to a leadership post when House Speaker Dennis Hastert appointed him chairman of the House Administration Committee in 2001.
More recently, Ney, R-Heath, has been mentioned as a likely candidate for chairman of the House Financial Services Committee or other plum assignments.
But today, the six-term lawmaker’s very political survival is imperiled by the possibility he will be indicted in a Justice Department probe of bribery and fraud in Congress.
Under pressure from Republican leaders, he temporarily stepped down as chairman of the Administration Committee earlier this month.
Two convicted lobbyists, Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, have accused Ney in plea agreements of playing a central role in their corruption scheme. They allege he promised to pass legislation and perform other official favors for their clients in exchange for campaign contributions, a free golf trip to Scotland and other perks.
The situation recalls Ney’s first years in Congress, when he was under investigation for taking payments from lobbyists while he was a state legislator. Several lawmakers and lobbyists were indicted, but Ney was cleared.
Ney hasn’t been charged in the current federal investigation. And he insists he has done nothing wrong.
Until recently, Ney seemed to have mastered the art of getting ahead.
AT THE FOREFRONT
In 2003, he was named chairman of an important housing subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He also landed a spot on the Transportation Committee, a rich source of local highway projects for influential lawmakers.
The sandy-haired former teacher has used his clout to steer millions of dollars in highway projects to his rural Ohio district.
Less well-known is his behind-the-scenes role in assisting leadership, traveling around the country to stump for other candidates and raising millions of dollars for the Republican Party.
Based on interviews with lawmakers, lobbyists and other students of Congress, Ney has achieved his success through his legislative abilities, as well as being a good soldier and a team player.
Ney himself did not respond to requests to discuss his rise in leadership.
But according to colleagues, Ney has earned a reputation as a hard worker, a fair and accommodating chairman, and someone who maintains congenial relations with Democrats while remaining a fierce partisan.
Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., top Democrat on the Administration Committee, lauds the former chairman as a “very, very sensitive, cooperative, respectful, professional member of Congress.”
When Ney conducts hearings, she said, “he allows for both the majority and the minority to have their points of view stated without any repercussions or rebuttals that are very harsh. He might disagree with you, but it’s in a very professional way.”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who works with Ney on housing issues, finds him to be more sympathetic to his view of housing needs than most Republicans.
“Unfortunately, he’s been very much in the minority there, so that his ability to deliver some things has been cut back,” Frank said.
Ney’s status as a “vulnerable” incumbent in his earliest bids for re-election, a consequence of being in a historically Democratic district, also may have facilitated leadership opportunities.
HELP FROM SPEAKER
Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who came into Congress the same year as Ney, said then-Speaker Newt Gingrich sought to assist members from marginal Republican districts “by giving them assignments that would allow them to ... have an opportunity to go back home and tell people that they had moved up in leadership or that they had an important position that allowed them to get things done for their district.”
“And Bob was certainly in that category,” he said.
“I don’t think there was any particular strong leadership ability that Bob had, certainly over some of these other people, other than the fact that they were trying to help him,” he added.
Ney jumped ahead of the more senior Rep. Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich., when Hastert tapped him to lead the Administration Committee five years ago. The committee oversees House office and parking space, security and other operations on Capitol Hill.
“Ney has proven himself to be a strong leader,” Hastert said when he appointed him to the position informally referred to as “mayor of Capitol Hill.”
Unlike the more scholarly Ehlers, a physicist, Ney was what they call a “team player” in leadership circles. He had served as a deputy whip since early 1995, part of a team responsible for rounding up Republican votes on important bills.
Ney also had a history of raising money for and campaigning on behalf of fellow Republicans — a prerequisite for rising in leadership in a party determined to retain its majority.
While Republican lawmakers elect most of their chairmen, three are chosen by the speaker, and the head of the Administration Committee is one of them.
“It requires the speaker deciding that you’re one of his guys,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the American Enterprise Institute. “And when push comes to shove, when he (the speaker) says, ‘You’re going to do this, I need you to do this,’ you’ll do this. And that’s what Bob Ney did,” Ornstein said.
As chairman, Ney fought unsuccessfully for an alternative campaign finance reform plan backed by House leaders. Instead, Congress approved a more far-reaching overhaul sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
But Ney also authored an election reform bill in 2002, which became law and has won praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.
Ney’s relationship with Hastert and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who is fighting charges of campaign-related money laundering in Texas, goes back to his earliest days as a congressman.
Republicans had just won back control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and the leadership was looking for deputy whips with state legislative experience.
DeLay was majority whip at the time, while Hastert, R-Ill., served as his chief deputy.
“When DeLay and Denny were running the whip team, I know that Bob was one of the first freshman whips they picked in 1995,” said Dan Mattoon, a Washington lobbyist who is well-connected to Hastert.
MAKING HIS MARK
Ney’s background as a state legislator worked to his advantage.
“They’re the best, usually, because they’ve been in a legislative body,” said Mattoon, a longtime friend of Ney’s.
Ney also made a mark as a leading fundraiser for the party and other Republicans.
Since at least 1998, he’s served on the executive committee of the National Republican Congressional Committee, which doles out tens of millions of dollars to GOP candidates.
According to federal campaign records, Ney has raised millions of dollars as a sponsor of major fundraising events and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and party committees.
Ney draws most of his contributions from political action committees representing the financial services industry, insurance and real estate.
Early on, Ney himself needed help to defend his seat against challengers.
In 1999, he was among nine “endangered” lawmakers who each received $100,000 in campaign contributions that DeLay raised from congressional leaders and friendly lobbyists, including Abramoff.
Ironically enough, at the time, a defender of that controversial operation was Scanlon, then DeLay’s press secretary.
“There’s nothing new going on here,” Scanlon told Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication. “All of the representatives of the business community have a stake in re-electing a Republican majority, and we are just expediting that process for them.”
Almost seven years later, Scanlon is cooperating with federal prosecutors. And this time, it may be his testimony that endangers Ney.