Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio) agreed yesterday to plead guilty to corruption charges after admitting to performing a variety of official acts for lobbyists in exchange for campaign contributions, expensive meals, luxury travel, sports tickets and thousands of dollars in gambling chips. He is the first elected official to face prison time in the ongoing influence-peddling investigation of former GOP lobbying powerhouse Jack Abramoff.
After fiercely proclaiming his innocence for more than a year, Ney signed a two-count plea agreement Wednesday that the Justice Department filed in federal court yesterday. The charges of conspiracy and making a false statement could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, but prosecutors plan to seek a term of 27 months. He faces up to $500,000 in fines.
The six-term Republican said in a statement yesterday that he was seeking treatment for alcoholism and was sorry for "serious mistakes" that have brought pain to his family and constituents. He is scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Washington on Oct. 13 to formally enter his plea.
Coming just seven weeks before the midterm congressional elections, Ney's admission of guilt was cited yesterday by Democrats as evidence that Congress is beset by a "ring of corruption." But Republicans were quick to note that a Democrat, Rep. William J. Jefferson of Louisiana, is the focus of a separate federal bribery investigation.
At a news conference announcing the acceptance of the plea agreement and the filing of the charging document in court, the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division, Alice S. Fisher, said Ney had breached the public trust. "Congressman Ney and his co-conspirators engaged in a long-term pattern to deprive the public of his honest, unbiased services as an elected official," Fisher said.
Court papers made no mention of any agreement on Ney's part to provide evidence against anyone else in the ongoing probe, unlike in other plea agreements that prosecutors have reached with Abramoff and his former associates. Ney is the eighth person to be indicted or to admit wrongdoing in connection with the Abramoff investigation, under which lobbyists, government officials and other lawmakers continue to be scrutinized.
Ney, once one of the most powerful members of the House, admitted to offering legislation at the behest of Abramoff and his team of lobbyists, which included former Ney chief of staff Neil G. Volz. In exchange, Ney accepted a stream of things of value, such as luxury vacations to Scotland, Lake George, N.Y, and New Orleans; tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions; restaurant meals; and tickets to sporting events, including the use of exclusive stadium suites. Prosecutors valued the trips alone at more than $170,000.
In 2002, Ney sought to insert four amendments into an election-reform bill to benefit Abramoff's clients. He further admitted to helping another Abramoff client win a multimillion-dollar contract to provide wireless communication service to the U.S. Capitol, and to inserting comments into the Congressional Record to help Abramoff purchase a casino cruise line in Florida.
Ney, 52, under legal and political pressure for months because of his connections to Abramoff, announced this summer that he would not seek reelection. Ney has not been seen publicly in the House since he cast a vote Tuesday night, and he missed more than a dozen votes on Wednesday and Thursday. His phones went unanswered in his Washington office. His Chillicothe, Ohio, office released the congressman's statement.
"I have made serious mistakes and am sorry for them," Ney said in the statement. "I am very sorry for the pain I have caused to my family, my constituents in Ohio and my colleagues." He said he recently recognized that "a dependence on alcohol has been a problem for me."
"I am not making any excuses, and I take full responsibility for my actions. Over the years, I have worked to help others, but now I am the one that needs help," Ney's statement said.
As chairman of the House Administration Committee, Ney was known as the mayor of Capitol Hill. The committee oversees the Capitol Police and the administrative functions of Congress.
Ney has been under mounting pressure in the investigation, first with Abramoff's guilty plea and agreement to cooperate in the investigation early this year, and then with the guilty plea in May of his former aide Volz, who admitted to conspiring to corruptly influence the congressman and others. Ney admitted to encouraging Volz to violate the one-year ban on lobbying by staffers who leave Congress.
Ney had resigned his committee post earlier this year. William E. Lawler, an attorney for Ney, declined to say yesterday whether the congressman would now resign his seat. "He is taking things one step at a time," Lawler said.
Lawler said Ney is receiving treatment for "alcohol-dependence issues" but declined to say whether he has entered a rehabilitation facility. Lawler said treatment was the deciding factor in setting the date for next month's court appearance.
Others familiar with the case said that Ney's representatives tried to put off the announcement of the plea deal until then.
Ney will be eligible for a government pension because Congress has not acted on legislation that would ban pensions for convicted lawmakers.
Ney and his attorneys have professed his innocence for more than a year, even as the congressman's legal position deteriorated. Ney himself acknowledged the difficulty in facing down the "tremendous pressure from the government" when his close friend and former aide Volz agreed to testify against him. Tony C. Rudy and Michael Scanlon, onetime lobbyists and aides to former House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), are also cooperating witnesses, as is former Abramoff casino business partner Adam Kidan.
Court papers make reference to other lobbyists and staffers with ties to Ney, including one called "Staffer C" in court papers. Public records and sources identify him as William Heaton, who, when he replaced Volz in 2001 at the age of 23, was the youngest chief of staff on Capitol Hill.
Ney admitted, in addition to the Abramoff ties, accepting free airfare, luxury accommodations and thousands of dollars' worth of gambling chips in 2003 from a foreign businessman, who was not identified in the court papers but has previously been identified by Ney attorney Mark H. Tuohey as Fouad al-Zayat, a high-rolling denizen of London's gambling clubs nicknamed "The Fat Man."
Zayat, who has been described in British media as a Syrian-born arms middleman, was seeking Ney's help in getting a visa and an exemption to a U.S. law that bars the sale of airplane parts to another country. The exemption was meant for Zayat's company, FN Aviation, a Cyprus-based aircraft-leasing firm.
Zayat and a partner, Tuohey said in an interview last year, were "offering to play a role or be intermediaries" with Iraq and Iran in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In day-long meetings in London, said Tuohey, Ney talked to the men about "potential transactions that could favorably affect our relations with those countries."
Ney admitted in court documents that he failed to disclose on forms filed with Congress the full amount of his winnings at a London casino -- reporting that he had won $34,000 on a game of chance instead of $50,000.
Ney also failed to disclose other winnings -- $5,000 worth of pound notes that he had handed to a staff member to avoid carrying them through U.S. customs himself.
In the court documents, Ney admitted later contacting the State Department on Zayat's behalf.
In March 2002, Ney -- at the urging of Volz, Abramoff, Rudy and Scanlon -- agreed to sponsor legislation that would reopen a shuttered casino for a Texas Indian tribe that the lobbyists represented. The Tigua tribe's casino had been shut down at the urging of state officials. Abramoff had secretly agitated for the closing, then signed the tribe up as a client, promising he could help get the casino reopened.
After Ney agreed to sponsor the legislation, Scanlon e-mailed Abramoff in one of the more memorable exchanges to become public in the lobbying scandal: "Just met with Ney!!! We're f'ing gold!!!! He's going to do Tigua."
Six days later, Abramoff directed tribal officials to make three contributions totaling $32,000 to Ney's campaign and political action committees.
Ney, at the urging of Volz and the other lobbyists, also pushed through a 2002 license for an Israeli telecommunications company to install cellphone antennas for the House. The company, Foxcom Wireless, now known as MobileAccess and based in Vienna, Va., later paid Abramoff $280,000 for lobbying, according to disclosure forms.
The Washington Post reported in 2004 that the wireless firm had donated $50,000 to the Capital Athletic Foundation, a charity that Abramoff sometimes used to secretly pay for lobbying activities. In the summer of 2002, Abramoff had the foundation pay for a golfing trip to Scotland for Ney and others.
"The whole thing was just nauseating," said John Spindler, vice president of LGC Wireless, the company that lost the House contract to Abramoff's client. "You know these kind of things are going on, but when you get embroiled in it, you go, my God, how could this go on?"
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