Bob Ney won election to Congress in 1994, one of a bevy of Republican revolutionaries who promised to clean up Washington and reform the House of Representatives. The Ohio Congressman leapfrogged to power by raising cash for Tom DeLay’s Retain Our Majority program. As chairman of the powerful House Administration Committee, which oversees everything from lawmaker mail to parking spaces, Ney became known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill. It’s a fitting nickname for a man currently at the forefront of Washington’s most toxic corruption contretemps–the money trail of über-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The brazen manner in which Ney allegedly pulled strings for lobbyists in return for financial favors is powerfully emblematic of the pay-to-play politics honed to perfection by DeLay Inc. Today, Ney and DeLay are the clearest examples of a “revolution” gone terribly awry.
The scandal dates back to early 2000, when Ney’s chief of staff, Neil Volz, got a call from an old Hill buddy, Michael Scanlon. Scanlon had recently left DeLay’s press office to work for the well-connected Abramoff, who was trying to buy a gambling boat company in Florida named SunCruz Casinos. Scanlon asked Volz for help. Ney, an old friend of Abramoff’s from their days as College Republicans, obliged by inserting a statement in the Congressional Record that pressured SunCruz’s then-ownership to sell the company. It was the first of many favors Ney would perform on Scanlon’s and Abramoff’s behalf.
The SunCruz deal served as a precursor to richer fortunes for the lobbying duo, namely the $82 million in fees they demanded between 2001 and 2004 to lobby on gaming rights for a half-dozen Indian tribes. Much of that money, we know now, vanished in a tangled web of phony Christian front groups, bogus self-enriching charitable organizations and pricey Congressional junkets. In mid-November Scanlon pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to bribe public officials and defraud Indian tribes. The plea alleges that Scanlon and Abramoff “engaged in a course of conduct through which one or both of them offered and provided a stream of things of value to public officials in exchange for a series of official acts.” The provider of those ten “official acts” was a certain “Representative #1”–identified by lawyers as Ney–who received “travel, golf fees, frequent meals, entertainment, election support for candidates…and campaign contributions.”
Ney is fighting the law on two fronts. He’s already been subpoenaed and has reportedly received word of a possible indictment in the SunCruz case, which goes to trial January 9, with Abramoff and his mob-tied partner, Adam Kidan, facing federal conspiracy and wire-fraud charges. Kidan recently copped a deal and agreed to testify against Abramoff and Ney. And Ney could also face legal action in the massive Justice Department probe prompted by John McCain’s high-profile Senate Indian Affairs Committee investigation of Abramoff. “Gratuity and bribery charges have two ends: donor and donee,” says Stan Brand, a top Washington criminal defense attorney and former counsel to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. “I deduce from these facts that it’s inevitable Ney will be charged.”
The facts tell a damning story. Ney placed statements into the Congressional Record haranguing SunCruz–and then added another statement praising the company seven months later, in October 2000, after Abramoff had acquired SunCruz and days before he donated $10,000 on Ney’s behalf to a GOP fundraising committee. Abramoff hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser for Ney in March 2001, and frequently comped Ney’s meals at his Washington restaurant, Signatures. Ney inserted a provision into a bipartisan election-reform bill, granting another Abramoff client, the Tigua Indian Tribe of El Paso, Texas, gaming rights–the very rights Abramoff had fought against a year earlier as a lobbyist for the rival Louisiana Coushatta Tribe. “Just met with Ney!!!” Abramoff wrote in an e-mail to Scanlon in March 2002. “We’re f’ing gold!!!! He’s going to do Tigua.” Six days later Abramoff instructed the Tiguas to donate $32,000 to three of Ney’s political action committees.
By summer 2002 Ney had a loftier request. “Our friend,” Abramoff wrote to the Tiguas, “asked if we could help (as in cover) a Scotland golf trip for him and some staff…. The trip will be quite expensive (we did this for another member–you know who), two years ago.” That other member, of course, was DeLay. Ney’s trip, which ran up a six-figure tab, included former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, currently running for lieutenant governor in Georgia, and David Safavian, the White House procurement official indicted in October for obstructing the Abramoff investigation. Ney personally thanked the Tiguas upon his return, even though he’d known for months that their gaming provision would not make the final election reform legislation. His claim that Abramoff “duped” him into accepting money from the Tiguas appears almost laughably implausible as the evidence mounts.
The Scanlon plea likely marked the beginning of the end for Ney, but only the start of the Abramoff aftershocks in Washington. When instances of corruption swirled around the House leadership in the past few years, Congressional watchdogs warned that the scandals reached “beyond DeLay.” Now, as three dozen Justice Department officials pursue Abramoff’s cash flow, that phrase applies equally to Ney. “I think this could be the biggest corruption scandal in one hundred years,” Brand says. “By 2006 you’re going to see anywhere from one to six individual sitting members and half a dozen or more staff people indicted. It’s beyond Ney. He’s the first of many.”