Canton Repository

June 30, 2006

Key aides leaving Ney’s staff

By Toby Eckert and Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON - In another blow to Rep. Bob Ney, the beleaguered Ohio congressman is losing three of his top aides as he fends off a federal investigation into his ties with convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Meanwhile, a federal grand jury reportedly has subpoenaed Matt Parker, the manager of Ney’s re-election campaign, who also was Ney’s Ohio district director, for testimony in the Abramoff investigation.

Chief of Staff Will Heaton and Communications Director Brian Walsh are planning to leave the Heath Republican’s office in coming days, Walsh confirmed Thursday. Ney’s legislative director, Chris Otillio, already has left.

Six convicted so far

The unusual number of departures comes while Ney is under investigation by the Justice Department as part of a wide-ranging probe into Abramoff’s activities. Six former lobbyists or government officials have been convicted so far.

Ney insists he has done nothing wrong and was duped by Abramoff, who funded a lavish golf trip to Scotland in 2002 that included Ney, Heaton and several others.

Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Capitol Hill, reported Thursday that Parker was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the Abramoff investigation. The paper, quoting anonymous sources, said more subpoenas of Ney staffers are expected.

The six-term lawmaker issued a statement Thursday insisting that the departures were inevitable turnover among congressional staff members who he said “work very long hours.”

He added, “Therefore any suggestion or implication that the office of Ohio’s 18th Congressional District is operating at anything less than full speed ahead is baseless and without merit.”

But the campaign of his Democratic congressional opponent, Dover Law Director Zack Space, charged that the departures represented Ney’s top aides’ “abandoning ship” with a “corruption investigation — closing in,” Space’s campaign manager Joe Shafer said in a statement.

Political observers said the staff shake-up was another sign of Ney’s legal and political troubles.

“Sometimes those things happen, but in this context it’s impossible to interpret it as anything but a commentary about the current scandal swirling around him,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

In a phone interview, Walsh denied that his exit was related to the probe. He is going to work as communications director for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“It was not a decision that was made lightly,” Walsh said in an e-mail. “I will always care a great deal for Congressman Ney and his family, and I will always appreciate the opportunity he gave me in late 2002 by hiring me as communications director.”

Walsh will be replaced by Katie Harbath, who joined Ney’s staff last year from the Republican National Committee and served as his deputy press secretary before going to work on his campaign earlier this year.

Otillio, the top legislative expert in Ney’s office, has been replaced by Jamie L. McMillen, who worked as part of Ney’s legislative team.

Heaton, who has been identified along with former Ney aide Paul Vinovich as also being under investigation, was unavailable for comment. Otillio could not be reached for comment either.