June 4, 2006
RepNey golf junket: Scotch, castle, cigars
In the next five days, they played $400-per-person rounds of golf on the most famous golf course in the world, attended a military parade in an Edinburgh castle that one participant said looked like “something out of the Lord of the Rings,” drank expensive scotch and smoked cigars.
These were among the highlights of a weeklong visit to Scotland and England that Ney, R-Heath, reported was related to his duties as a member of Congress, according to evidence presented during a trial in federal court last week.
In the trial, former Bush administration official David Safavian is fighting charges he lied to investigators and obstructed justice after providing help to since-convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was seeking control of two pieces of federal land for a school and hotel development and who arranged the trip to Scotland.
Safavian was working as chief of staff to Stephen Perry, the Canton businessman who headed the General Services Administration at the time. Perry is not accused of wrongdoing.
The trial has shed considerable light on the trip, which Abramoff has claimed in a plea agreement was among the benefits he offered to Ney in exchange for the congressman’s help in passing legislation beneficial to his clients.
Ney, who is under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department in the wide-ranging corruption probe, insists he has not done anything wrong or illegal. The six-term lawmaker has not been charged.
“Ney has pledged his full cooperation and has voluntarily turned over hundreds of documents on a range of issues as part of an ongoing effort to make clear that he has done nothing wrong here,” his spokesman, Brian Walsh, said in reaction to allegations made at the trial.
Along with Ney, Safavian was among nine participants in the trip paid for by Abramoff, who also went.
Others on the trip were Ney’s former top aide Neil Volz, who had gone to work for Abramoff as a lobbyist; Ney’s chief of staff, Will Heaton; Ney’s former committee director Paul Vinovich; onetime Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed; another lobbyist and Abramoff’s son.
Volz, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy in Abramoff’s corruption scheme, discussed the trip while testifying as a prosecution witness last week. Taking the stand in his own defense, Safavian also answered questions about the trip.
Although the majority of time was spent at the golf course, Volz and Safavian said there also were plans for what Safavian called an “official business component” for Ney and his staff.
“Part of the trip was Congressman Ney and his staff were going to meet with some Scottish politicians,” Safavian said. “Mr. Ney and his staff were going to sit down with their counterparts.”
A pre-trip itinerary released by prosecutors said a dinner had been scheduled in Edinburgh for the second night of the visit, “possibly with Conservative Party.”
Volz and Safavian said the dinner fell through. But recently, Ney’s attorneys said Ney did meet with several members of the Scottish Parliament, whom the attorneys did not identify.
In a required congressional travel disclosure he filed after the trip, Ney said he spoke to members of the Scottish Parliament, went to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo parade and visited the British Parliament.
He did not mention golf.
The trip first drew scrutiny during a Senate committee hearing in late 2004, when investigators were looking at it as part of an alleged fraud perpetrated by Abramoff on his tribal clients.
Ney released a statement at the time saying he had been “duped” by Abramoff, who he said told him the trip “would help support a charitable organization that he founded through a meeting he organized with Scottish Parliament officials.”
He said Abramoff told him the trip was being paid for by a public policy organization that had sponsored congressional travel in the past.
Since then, Ney has declined to answer reporters’ questions about the trip, while his staff and attorneys have provided few details.
The trial has produced an overview of the trip with little specific information on Ney’s activities.
Volz and Safavian said they golfed four to six times over five days under an arrangement where members of the group rotated in and out of each other’s foursomes. They did not say exactly how many times Ney golfed.
One night, the group enjoyed a fine dinner at the Old Course Hotel, which looks out on the fabled course where legend has it the game began. In the evenings, they met for drinks in the hotel bar where a round of scotch cost more than $100, Volz said.
Ney’s room in Scotland ran more than $400 a night, according to a bill shown by prosecutors.
When the group went to London, they stayed in the $500-a-night Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park, Volz said.
But according to Ney’s attorney, Mark Tuohey, the congressman stayed in a less expensive hotel and flew back to Washington on a commercial flight after one night. Tuohey did not identify the hotel.
In London, the group appears to have gone their separate ways and neither Volz nor Safavian saw much of Ney. Volz said he recalled Ney telling him “he went over to meet with somebody in the British Parliament building.”
Safavian said the only time he spent with Ney in London was when they toured Westminster Abbey together.
Volz also asserted Ney was a “champion” of lobbyists, something Ney spokesman Walsh disputes. Volz said he sought to get Ney to put a provision in election reform legislation giving Abramoff use of government land in Maryland for a school.
Responding to the testimony, Walsh said Volz did not provide evidence that “any official action was taken on any of the issues” he testified about.
“The congressman does not recall any conversation with Neil about (the land issue), but even, hypothetically, if there was such a conversation, the fact is that nothing was ever done by the congressman,” he said.
Safavian’s defense attorney, Barbara Van Gelder, asked her client whether he ever asked Ney to put the provision in a bill. He said no.
Safavian added he did not hear anyone make a pitch to Ney to pass such legislation during the trip.