Times Reporter

 September 16, 2006

 Ney pleads guilty: Lawmaker admits to charges, enters rehab

 By Paul M. Krawzak
Copley News Service


WASHINGTON – Rep. Bob Ney will plead guilty to corruptly accepting thousands of dollars in gifts from lobbyists in exchange for doing legislative favors for them, Justice Department officials announced Friday.

The six-term Republican from Heath, once a rising star in Congress, faces up to 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines for crimes he will formally plead guilty to on Oct. 13. Prosecutors are recommending two years and three months in prison, based on federal sentencing guidelines.

Ney’s plea to two felony counts – conspiracy to commit a variety of offenses and filing false financial disclosures with Congress – follows his vigorous insistence over the past two years that he did nothing illegal, unethical or wrong.

Ney, 52, is the first lawmaker to be taken down by an ongoing federal probe of a corruption scheme orchestrated by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a probe that has resulted in convictions against seven other lobbyists or government officials.

In a statement released after Friday’s announcement, Ney admitted to making mistakes, acknowledged a drinking problem and said he was seeking treatment.

“I have made serious mistakes, and I am sorry for them,” said Ney, who dropped his bid for re-election last month, citing the stress of the investigation on his family. “I am very sorry for the pain I have caused to my family, my constituents in Ohio and my colleagues.”

Adding that he had done a “great deal of soul-searching recently,” Ney said he

had “come to recognize

that a dependence on alcohol has been a problem for me.” In court documents, Ney admitted he accepted thousands of dollars in trips, meals, sports and entertainment tickets, campaign contributions and other benefits from Abramoff and other lobbyists. In return, he used his official position to help them, going back to early 2000.

Congressional rules prohibit lawmakers from accepting more than $100 per year from the same source except in limited circumstances. The gifts included a lavish $160,000 golf trip to Scotland in 2002, which prosecutors said he “mischaracterized” as an official visit.

Ney reported in travel disclosures to Congress that he gave a speech to the Scottish Parliament, visited the British Parliament and attended a Scottish military festival.

Prosecutors said he did not speak to Scottish parliamentarians nor visit the British Parliament, and he attended the festival “as a tourist with no official duties.”

In return for the trip and other favors, Ney unsuccessfully sought to put provisions into a voting bill that would have lifted a ban on casino gaming on two Texas Indian tribes that were clients of Abramoff.

Prosecutors said the conspiracy involved several others, including Abramoff; former congressional aides-turned-lobbyists Michael Scanlon, Tony Rudy and Neil Volz; and former Ney chief of staff Will Heaton.

In an admission unrelated to Abramoff, Ney said he and two staff members, including Heaton, accepted thousands of dollars in gambling chips from Fouad al-Zayat, a foreign businessman and high-roller who sought Ney’s help in getting around U.S. laws barring him from selling aircraft and spare parts to Iran.

Ney flew to London at least twice in 2003 to meet with al-Zayat and gamble in casinos where the businessman was a member. Prosecutors said Ney returned with more than $50,000 in gambling winnings but did not pay back or report the funds he received from al-Zayat.

After one of the trips, Ney ordered a member of his staff to carry $5,000 worth of British pounds through U.S. Customs so Ney could report lower dollar amount. The next year, Ney reported in a congressional financial disclosure that he had won $34,000 in two hands of cards at a London casino.

For all the favors Ney agreed to do for Abramoff, al-Zayat and others, he only succeeded in two of them, said Justice Department officials.

As chairman of the Administration Committee, Ney had the authority to award a contract to provide wireless telecommunications service in the House office complex. He gave it to an Abramoff client in 2002.

Two years earlier, he inserted two statements in the Congressional Record in support of Abramoff’s interest in a Florida casino.

In the plea, Ney also admitted violating a lobbying ban when he encouraged his former chief of staff Volz, who went to work for Abramoff, to illegally lobby Ney and others during a one-year waiting period.

Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher, who announced the guilty plea, said Ney and his co-conspirators “engaged in a long-term pattern of defrauding the public of his unbiased, honest services as an elected official.” She said he was “acting in his own best interests, and not the best interests of his constituents.”

A spokesman for Ney said he is in an in-patient alcohol rehabilitation program that he entered Wednesday or Thursday, after casting several congressional votes on Tuesday.

Ney’s attorney William Lawler declined to identify the facility and was unsure how long he would be there.

“That’s going to be up to the doctors and Bob, and the progress that he makes,” Lawler said, adding that Ney has had an alcohol problem for “certainly, years.”

Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Navarre, who represents the congressional district north of Ney’s, said he was “sorry that events have turned out as they have.”

“I always got along with Bob and liked him as a member and colleague, and I think he did a good job as chairman” of the House Administration Committee, Regula said.

Regula, however, rejected demands from a Democratic campaign committee that he give up $9,000 in campaign contributions the group said he received from Ney. “First of all, I want all the facts before I make any statement on that,” Regula said. “We have made contributions to each other in various circumstances and to Ohio Republicans.”

Unlike several others who pleaded guilty before him, Ney is not cooperating with prosecutors as part of the agreement.

While it is not totally clear why, one possible explanation is that prosecutors were using the earlier defendants to gather incriminating information on Ney, their target, and do not need help from him.

Ney’s plea is likely to revive debate over the Abramoff scandal in the heated battle for control of Congress in the November general election. Democrats have been trying to make the scandal a liability for Republicans, who now control the House and Senate and have done little to reform lobbying rules or other ethics guidelines. In Ohio, state Democratic Chairman Chris Redfern immediately tied Ney to State Sen. Joy Padgett of Coshocton, who is now trying to keep Ney’s seat in Republican hands.

“Joy Padgett has shown her stripes as a Bob Taft appointee and hand-picked candidate of Bob Ney,” Redfern said. “We can’t trust her to clean up the mess in Washington.”

Redfern contrasted Padgett to the Democratic candidate in the 18th District, Zack Space of Dover, saying Space “has taken an ethics pledge to clean up Congress and put his district above the special interests, while Padgett hasn’t even returned Bob Ney’s tainted campaign contributions.”

But Ohio Republican Chairman Robert Bennett said Democrats ignore corruption in their own ranks.

“We will continue to clean up corruption wherever it exists in government, regardless of partisanship, while the Democrats stand idly by pointing a hypocritical finger,” he said.

Copley News Service Columbus Bureau Chief Paul E. Kostyu contributed to this story